At sundown, the scenery in Frederick typically shifts, a change best described by downtown residents who have witnessed street conflict at night. Their view goes beyond the everyday hustle and bustle. Under the cover of darkness, they say a downtown subculture exists.
Mary Lake and Charles Edward Carroll, both of South Carroll Street, are among the residents who know what Frederick looks like after dark.
“Frederick ain’t Frederick no more,” Lake said as he stood near Carroll Creek Linear Park on a recent Thursday night. “Our town is just like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York. We are just like that right now.”
The linear park has come under fire in recent years. In response to complaints about crime in the area, the Frederick Police Department has assigned a group of officers — dubbed the “downtown squad” by some — to address quality-of-life concerns.
Officers have cracked down on offenses, including panhandling, littering and public drunkenness.
“We are being responsive to the concerns of residents, business owners and city leaders,” Police Chief Kim Dine has said.
While the department will not say how many officers are patrolling downtown, Dine has said police made more than 650 arrests in the area in the last year.
But to some, those arrests have not erased fear.
‘Are we safe?’
Lake, 52, said she wants to see groups of teenagers find more productive things to do, instead of hanging out at the park. She said feuds among city neighborhoods result in violence.
“All up and down they are fighting each other,” Lake said. “They have got to stop.”
Carroll, 68, said downtown violence makes him afraid to leave his home most nights. He decided to walk with Lake on Thursday, so she would not have to go to the post office alone.
“We don’t travel on the streets alone,” Lake said.
She remembers a time when residents felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked. Now, the scene has changed.
“Are we safe? No, we are not safe. Are we guaranteed our life out here on the street? No, we are not,” Lake said.
City officials disagree.
While people should always be aware of their surroundings, Mayor Randy McClement said, Frederick’s streets are not unsafe for residents or visitors.
“I understand the fear, and I don’t want to squelch it or give it a lesser factor than it should be, but we live in an urban setting,” McClement said. “There are certain precautions people should take in an urban setting.”
Recent attention has focused on Mullinix Park, near the site of last week’s fatal shooting. Mullinix adjoins Carroll Creek Linear Park, just west of the bustling business area.
There is no money in the city’s budget for cameras in Mullinix Park, McClement said, but officials are exploring options.
Money from the second phase of the linear park development could be diverted for the cameras and lighting residents have called for, McClement said, and public works employees are looking at installing at least one light in Mullinix Park.
Downtown drugs and death
Frederick changed about 30 years ago, when illegal drugs became more commonplace in the area, Lake said.
“Frederick left back in the ’80s when crack cocaine hit the streets,” she said.
The police department’s drug enforcement unit takes tips from residents about suspected drug activity. Some officers in the unit wear plain clothes, but some local residents say that does not mean they cannot identify them.
One of these residents is Tyree Thomas, 19, a Gov. Thomas Johnson High School graduate who wants to pursue a career in nursing. She was with a group of friends downtown Thursday night.
“You can come down here, get a bite to eat, and chill with your friends and family,” Thomas said. “But sometimes at night, you never know what you are going to see down here.”
Downtown Frederick is a good hang-out spot, she said.
“Here, you have no worries,” she said. “When you are down here, you know how to get (from) point A to point B.”
Thomas said she was downtown in the early hours of Sept. 30, before Lamont George-Lee Ellis, 36, of Urbana, was found fatally shot near Mullinix Alley and West All Saints Street.
Recent incidents do not indicate an explosion in violent crime, according to city officials.
“We are a city, and with that comes the benefits of a city,” said Pennington, citing night life and cultural attractions. “With being a city, we are also experiencing some city issues. But we’re not PG County and we’re not Baltimore.”
Police are listening to the concerns of residents, Pennington said, and they are working proactively in the area affected by the most recent crimes, using intelligence-driven policing to identify the source of the problem.
“Unfortunately, some of it is reactive,” Pennington said of police efforts. “But the proactive part is reaching out and looking at the data. We aren’t just looking for a Band-Aid. We want to find out who’s causing it.”
Investigations into Ellis’ death and a Monday fight that included gunfire are progressing, Pennington said, declining to provide details.
Alderwoman Carol Krimm says the city’s declining crime rate, which includes a drop in violent crime, shows that Frederick is still a safe place to live.
‘Perception is reality’
Crime in Frederick reached a 20-year low in 2010 and further decreased by 3.1 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
But Krimm is approaching residents to discuss the issue.
“We need to try and figure out what’s sparking this current level of violence we’re seeing,” she said.
Krimm believes increased police presence, combined with an additional liquor inspector to keep tabs on downtown bars, will help reduce some of the problems, she said.
Pennington has received positive feedback from residents about recent efforts to beef up police presence in the South/All Saints streets area, he said.
“We are receiving an outpouring of support from the citizens that is just wonderful,” he said.
Alderwoman Shelley Aloi said she is already seeing results. She has been walking up and down Carroll Creek at different times of day to see if she would notice an increased police presence, she said.
“Over the past three days, I definitely saw an obvious difference,” she said.
But statistics and initiatives to reduce crime mean little to residents if they feel that their environment is becoming more dangerous, Aloi said.
“Perception is reality,” she said. “If you are the one out of 1,000 people who happen to be the victim of a crime, then there’s a problem.”