Not So Bad Boys
Riding Along with the Inner Harbor’s Bicycle Cops
The laughter explodes with such vigor from beneath Henninger’s bushy mustache you’d think it’s the first time he’s heard his partner utter the line. Sanders also laughs appreciatively at his own joke.
The joke about the harbor cops is probably a bit long in the tooth, as are most of the men in the unit—Sanders is 53, Henninger is 57—but they’ve got plenty to laugh about: The weather’s finally getting nice, tourist season means lots of overtime, and the 20 officers of the Inner Harbor Unit are responsible for crime prevention in that rare part of the city that is virtually crime-free. According to the police department, there hasn’t been a homicide in the patrol zone of the Inner Harbor Unit in three years, no robberies or assaults so far this year, and less than one reported crime a day—usually purse snatchings and car break-ins—to share among a minimum of eight patrol officers and two supervising officers. Plus, while less fortunate uniforms have to respond to endless dispatch calls in blimpy Ford sedans, the harbor guys (there are currently no female officers in the unit) enjoy a decidedly more laid-back routine—atop sleek BMW bicycles.
Inside a police locker room tucked away beneath the Kaufman Pavilion, officers Jerry Weaver, 48, and John Wagner, 44, pick out their foldable mountain bikes, which retail for $1,000 but were donated by BMW in 2002. (The German automaker has pledged to donate a fresh shipment of 12 new ones in July.) Not every harbor unit officer chooses to pedal—Sanders and Henninger are hoofing it today, for example—but each of the 14 men is assigned his own bike. This afternoon it’s Weaver and Wagner’s turn to ride the brick walkways and keep them safe for shoppers.
The job may literally be a walk (or ride) in the park, but Baltimore’s bike cops are still fortified with all the appurtenances of their trade. They wear body armor underneath their short-sleeved golf shirts, and hang the requisite .40-caliber Glock pistol, two extra ammunition clips, and ASP expandable baton from their belts. Which is to say, they look like cops. Weaver is black and Wagner is white, but they share the wooly mustache, clipped hair, and stocky build of police officers everywhere. Like their riders, the lightweight aluminum-frame bicycles are loaded down with gear: canvas saddlebags packed with pads of parking tickets and citations earmarked for any member of Baltimore’s vast criminal class who dares tread on the city’s prized tourist trap.
Indeed, no sooner do Weaver and Wagner begin their leisurely loop around the harbor than they spot their first scofflaw, 70-year-old John Smith. The retired auto mechanic’s crime: riding a bicycle.
“On the promenade, sir, you gotta walk your bike,” Weaver explains to Smith, while issuing him a paper “stop receipt,” which looks like a criminal citation but is really just a formal warning.
“I don’t see no sign saying that,” Smith says.
Out “in the district” that kind of back talk might earn a surly septuagenarian a one-way ticket to Central Booking, but down here the police tend to be more forgiving. While writing him up, Weaver tries to ingratiate Smith with apologetic comments about the “perfect biking weather,” but the Riverside resident isn’t about to be sweet-talked by a cop, no matter how friendly.
“If I’m not allowed to ride, ain’t no sense in coming down here,” Smith says in a thin Baltimore accent. “I’ll just stay out there on the highway.”
Weaver appears alarmed at the prospect of the elderly man with the enormous glasses and rickety 10-speed negotiating traffic on Key Highway. He suggests Smith stick to the trolley lane running around the harbor. It would be a shame, after all, if park rules kept a longtime local away from the city’s jewel. Smith shrugs and pockets the stop receipt. “If it keeps me away from the harbor, it keeps me away from the harbor,” he mumbles, leading his bike away on foot. “I’ve lived here 70 years and there’s nothing down here I want, anyway.”
Weaver is unfazed by Smith’s churlishness. After many years of undercover drug surveillance in the Eastern District, he’s just happy to have returned to his patrolman’s roots, even if it means less excitement or glory than busting heroin dealers in the East Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up. Anyway, he’s had more than his share of both excitement and glory.
In 2000, Weaver was shot in the chest and arm while attempting to clear a drug corner in East Baltimore. His mother, who lived around the corner, heard the shots and ran to his side. The father of three children would make a complete recovery, but his mother died of a heart attack several hours later.
The Inner Harbor Unit is not an easy assignment to land, but it helps to be a hero. Lt. Gabe Bittner, commander of the police marine unit that oversees the harbor, says he gets as many as 50 applications for each job opening, and openings are rare.
“A lot of times, after you’ve been injured in the line of duty, the commissioners will allow you to go to whatever unit you select, if there’s an opening,” Weaver says. “And this was my choice. I like the Inner Harbor, I like dealing with people, I like public relations, and I like being outside.” He grins. “Getting paid to ride a bicycle and talk to people? I love it.”
Weaver explains the art of bike patrol while catching up to his partner, who rode off to sneak a Marlboro Light while Weaver was attending to the elderly cyclist.
“You want to ride along at a comfortable pace,” Weaver says, nodding at pedestrians along the way. “One, so you can observe what’s going on around you—How ya doin’, ladies?—and two, so you can watch for people sleeping in the bushes. A lot of people be laid up in the bushes.”
As if on cue, Weaver spots a disheveled woman asleep on the wooden bleachers lining the south walkway. While Weaver rouses her and reminds her of her obligation to remain upright while in public, Wagner is called over to mediate a dispute between the attendant at the Rusty Scupper parking lot and a pair of city Department of Public Works employees. It seems that the attendant is refusing to let the DPW truck exit the lot without a validated parking ticket. The DPW workers’ argument—“We work for the city, so we ain’t paying shit”—falls on deaf ears.
Weaver and Wagner take turns calming down the increasingly agitated disputants. Eventually, both the restaurant manager and police sergeant on duty, Henry Wagstaff, arrive on the scene to hammer out the negotiations. It’s nearly an hour before the feud is settled.
“Yeah, we’re not exactly Starsky and Hutch out here,” Wagner says apologetically, sucking down another cigarette. Most of his time, he says, is spent answering tourists’ questions about where to get a decent crab cake or housing prices in Federal Hill. “It’s not glorious.”
And then, just when it seems that the shift will pass without a single high-speed chase, the police radio hanging around Jerry Weaver’s neck crackles to life. After a brief and almost-urgent sounding exchange with the dispatcher, Weaver turns to Wagner. “We got a 911.” he says.
“A 911 hang-up,” Weaver says. Someone dialed the emergency line from a pay phone in the Harborplace mall and then hung up. “I’m not saying there’s not something to it,” he cautions, “but in 23 and a half years on the force, I’ve never had anything off a 911 hang-up.”
Still, it’s a good excuse to see what these Beemers are made of, and Weaver and Wagner double their normal speed—to about six miles an hour—and even hop a couple of curbs on the way to Light Street, to show off the bike’s spongy suspension fork. After checking all the pay phones in the mall to make sure there aren’t any citizens in distress anywhere, Weaver makes the rounds, greeting every single merchant on two floors, many of them by name. Except for Hooters. “I never go in there,” Weaver says. “What you do in plainclothes is not necessarily what you do in uniform.”
A half-hour later, Weaver is back outside, offering tourists his impromptu services as a photographer. A formation of young Police Academy recruits jogs by. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Weaver cheers. “Don’t they look good? They must be police officers!” Wagner leans on his bicycle, sipping an iced coffee, smoking another cigarette, and shaking his head with bemusement: “What office is Jerry running for?”
But Weaver’s glad-handing personality doesn’t seem at all affected. After years of crime fighting, he’s just genuinely happy to be a peacekeeper. “I get it from my mother, my neighborhood,” he says. “Did you know,” he adds, launching into another monologue, “that in the city of Baltimore everyone used to be real friendly at one time?”
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