Patrolling Baltimore’s “Wild Wild West”

19 photos

Mike Boyd and Jim Mingle are detectives for the Baltimore City Police Department assigned to West Baltimore, which has seen 15 killings this year, including a triple homicide this week. Along with 150 sworn officers who typically work administrative jobs, detectives are being called upon this month to temporarily bolster patrol units and create a visible blanket over the city to smother the outburst of gunfire.

Baltimore police add patrols to battle west-side violence
Justin George | Baltimore Sun

Jim Mingle and Mike Boyd are looking out over a sidewalk in the 1700 block of Walbrook Ave., a long, straight street lined with two-story rowhouses. The late afternoon seems calm, and kids play basketball on the sidewalk just a few houses from them. But police radios on the detectives’ belts soon crackle with news of a stabbing several blocks away.

On this 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift, the detectives’ main role is not investigating crime but preventing it, beefing up patrols to take back Baltimore’s streets in the face of a rise in shootings and homicides, up more than 30 percent over last year.

While some blocks are assigned one officer on foot patrol during this crime-fighting initiative, the assignment of two officers — especially detectives, who usually seek out sources and study trends — speaks to the trouble in the 1700 to 1900 blocks of Walbrook.

This month, a man was killed across from a church on those blocks, and the bodies of a couple were found late last month executed in a burning car nearby. Baltimore police have been called to the blocks more than 300 times in the past year, according to police records.

The blocks are part of West Baltimore’s Greater Mondawmin neighborhood, where residents have a lower median household income than the rest of the city and homicide is the fifth-leading cause of death, above diabetes, according to the Baltimore City Health Department. The area falls in the Police Department’s Western District, a three-square-mile area.
Boyd, who has worked in the district for four years, says station commanders used to answer phones by saying “Welcome to the Great Western District.”

“It’s the wild, wild West,” Mingle says. “Always has been, as long as I’ve been here.”

The assignment for Boyd and Mingle is one of the most basic and historic of police roles: beat cops, shepherds of the sidewalks. Police believe their mere presence as night watchmen will keep criminals away.

“That’s what you hope,” Mingle says. “You walk around. You let everyone know you’re here, and you lock your place down.”
As his shift begins, Mingle eats a candy bar, knowing that he may not have time later. The pair begin their patrol simply enough, by walking.

Up the sidewalk they go, past a man on crutches and a woman in a red fleece who tells the officers, “We need y’all around.”

Mingle, 44, works in Internal Affairs after stints over his 19 years as a homicide and missing-persons investigator. Boyd, 36, has spent 17 years with the force and works as a detective in the Western District, investigating shootings.

Both men, large and sturdy, have children in high school or college. Mingle, who has a grandson and joined the force after serving in the Gulf War, can’t wait for retirement — “me, my wife, my dogs and my hunting schedule.” Boyd expects to be working on the force longer; he has twins in elementary school and a sophomore in high school whose college years loom.

Near a boarded-up rowhouse, a man wearing sunglasses, a hood and a Toronto Blue Jays cap watches a group of kids playing basketball with a soccer ball and a plastic hoop. Boyd and Mingle stop by.

“C’mon,” Boyd tells one of the boys. “I saw you make it across the street.”

A kid in a gray stocking cap and Old Navy sweatshirt walks up to the detectives. “How many homicides happened?” asks Tyrone Smith, 11. “I saw the news. Twenty-nine homicides?”

Boyd says he doesn’t know. The detective tracks down the ball and hoists a shot. Soon, the officers are caught in a game with the kids, their gun belts jostling up and down as they try to block the boys’ shots. Other kids see the commotion and pull up on skateboards and scooters.

As they play, Mingle asks the boys if they play organized sports. One replies that he used to play second base. Tymique Goodman, 11, brags to the detectives that he’s met Maj. Robert Smith, the commander of the Western District. One detective recognizes another boy as the son of one of his first police partners.

Out of the blue, one boy volunteers that drugs are being sold in a store in the area. No one asked for any information, but that’s why, a detective would say later, foot patrols are important; the tip will be turned over to investigators in the district.

The detectives leave but the kids are drawn to them and continue to follow. One asks if they get “better cars” as they go higher in their careers. The detectives don’t shoo the kids away.

As Boyd walks, he twirls his nightstick, a brown wood baton with a specially carved handle and a long leather strap that clashes with the black and blue uniform. The club belonged to his father-in-law, who, like his father, served more than three decades as a city police officer.

Most police batons around the nation are long, black and slender, but Boyd’s is an espantoon, unique to the Baltimore Police Department. The sticks date back to some of the agency’s earliest times and were used not just for force but to bang on sidewalks to summon help in an era before police had radios.

They were also commonly twirled by officers as they patrolled. Boyd’s father, for instance, could make the espantoon “walk” or dance, a sign of an experienced officer who knew how to handle his stick — and his beat.

Former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier banned the clubs in 1994 because they weren’t uniform in shape and because he thought the twirling sent an intimidating message. But in 2000, then-commissioner Edward T. Norris allowed them back onto service belts, saying espantoons were part of the department’s rich history.

They are even listed in Webster’s dictionary as a Baltimore nightstick.

“It’s part of who we are,” Mingle says.

Residents don’t shy away from the detectives as they circle the blocks, passing the basketball-playing kids again, who joke that they dominated the officers.

“In my defense, I have kids older than you,” Boyd replies.

Boyd and Mingle enter an alley, which seems like a minefield of litter and giant bags of trash. An old torn boxing heavyweight belt spills out of one bag. Orange peels and bottles of prescription drugs are scattered all around. The policemen peer into backyards as they move through, looking for anything out of place.

They walk into convenience stores to check on clerks, and stroll past customers with scratched lottery tickets, joking about splitting the winnings. At the border of their blocks, they run into another detective, also on foot patrol, and visit, exchanging stories of arrests and a former supervisor with the nickname “Poundcake.”

A supervisor drives by to check on the officers and tells them about a nearby candlelight vigil going for the people killed in Tuesday’s triple shooting. He motors away, and Boyd and Mingle step into another carryout to make small talk with the kitchen workers and customers. They walk out, intoxicated by the smell, talking about the best chicken boxes in the city.

Cordial and confident as they patrol, the detectives constantly scan the streets.

About 8:20 p.m., they notice a sedan stopped in the middle of an intersection just feet away, rap music bumping from the speakers. After a few puzzling moments, Boyd yells to the driver: “You ain’t scared are you? It’s OK, you can go on.”

The driver opens the door. “No sir,” he says. “I’m a hardworking man.”

A Mercedes that was following the car stops several car lengths behind, the driver clearly surprised to see the two detectives standing on the street corner. Mingle guesses that the driver probably doesn’t have a valid license.

“That’s what we call ‘deer in headlights,’ “ Mingle says quietly.

Slowly, the Mercedes pulls forward and the two-car convoy crawls past the detectives, moving away from the blocks they had locked down.