A Lost Tradition in Baltimore: A Cop Walking His Beat

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When I was growing up in South Baltimore’s Locust Point, a working-class area back in the post-WWII era, one of my memories is of the policeman “walking his beat.” That’s right, a cop walking solo through the neighborhood. No police cars – no two-way radios, just him checking out the local scene. He was known as a “foot patrolman.”

A “beat” was the territory a police officer was required to patrol. It was a tradition where the officer got to “know” his area and the folks living there. In this case, the Locust Pointers got a chance to also check him out. To the best of my recollection, this relationship worked out just fine.

Along with his beat, there was usually a telephone kiosk or box, where the officer was required to call into his sergeant and/or commanding officer. Customarily, this was, absent an emergency, done at a set time.

The cop on the beat always carried a “billy club” with him. This was a wooden club, aka “a nightstick.” It was over a foot long, sometimes 36 inches long. It could be used for defensive or offensive purposes, like in suppressing a riot.

I remember an ugly incident outside of Ikey’s bar on Hull Street. A brawl broke out between some longshoremen who had had too much to drink. The cops showed up, sirens blasting away, in full battle gear with billy clubs flying. There were a lot of cracked heads that night.

This was long before any Civil Rights enactments. The local cop for better or worse was the law. My father warned me to “never argue with a cop!” Discussing things, on the other hand, was okay, but “don’t argue” with him. You want to argue, wait till you get to the court! (Courts were located at the local police station.) I wonder how many people would be alive today if they had gotten that kind of advice?

The first cop I recall by name walking his beat was a man the locals called, “Chewing Gum Johnny.” I didn’t dare call him by that monicker nor did anyone else. He was a big man, on the older side, always with a smile on his face. I think he was of Irish descent, like some in my neighborhood.

When I was a teenager in the early 50s, Simon Joseph Avara, k/a “Joe Avara,” made his appearance as our foot patrolman. He made a terrific impression on all. He was always immaculately dressed and as friendly as could be and a true professional cop in every way.

I wasn’t surprised to watch Joe Avara climb up the ranks and reach the position of Lt. Colonel on the Baltimore City police force. He died in 2009, at age 84.

There was one cop who once walk the beat in my neighborhood that didn’t impress me at all. He was more of a silly, lazy-clown type. I will simply use his initials – “CF.” He would do his best, not to make an arrest. In fact, when he spotted a drunk or a disorderly character on the street, he would “hide” until he passed.

Later, CF got a job in the main city courthouse stationed as a police guard in one of its rooms dedicated to trying criminal cases. This was before there was a public defender system. When he noticed a defendant didn’t have a lawyer, he would talk him or her into going across the street to get an attorney that he was “pimping” for. Sleazy CF got a piece of the action for his tactics.

The final cop on the beat I want to write about was Frank Battaglia. When I first encountered him in Locust Point, he was a sergeant assigned to the Southern District. He was known as a law and order dude, but friendly.

This was in the early fifties, I was a teenager then. One night I went to the back of the Deluxe Theatre on Fort Avenue to “relieve” myself. (It was an emergency, okay?)

Seconds later a cop car shows up with its lights flashing. I was called over to the car and read the riot act. It was Battaglia. I was thinking the worse. It turned out he knew my dad who worked on the waterfront so he decided to give me a break. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Battaglia seems to be everywhere in Locust Point. At the time, taverns (bars) dominated the peninsula. There were about twenty-two of them. They literally did what they wanted. Nobody ever thought of challenging them.

In the summertime before air conditioning, the taverns keep their doors and windows wide open with their jukeboxes blasting away till closing time. The naive locals, myself included, thought that was the way it was suppose to be. Battaglia, however, thought otherwise.

Battaglia made the owners turn their jukeboxes down and/or keep their doors and windows closed. He also strictly enforced the 2 am closing time. One owner brazenly resisted his edicts.

Battaglia went into his bar and took down his liquor license number. He then made a case against the owner at the Liquor Board. It agreed with Battaglia. After that incident, he never had any more trouble with that particular bar owner.

When Battaglia became Commander of the Southwestern District in the late ’50s, he adopted a controversial plan to stop automobiles at random in order to check out the driver’s compliance with licensing requirements. The novel scheme created a strong police presence in high crime areas. It also brought with it a storm of protest by civil libertarians because of its patent infringements on civil and constitutional rights.

The so-called “Battaglia Plan,” although well-intended, was eventually discarded by the department. The State Police’s current campaign of stopping automobiles at selected roadblocks to detect possible drunk drivers undoubtedly had its genesis in the Battaglia Plan of that earlier era.

Battaglia, no surprise here, went on serve as the distinguished Police Commissioner of Baltimore City from 1981-84, thanks to the appointment of Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Battaglia was highly respected by both the public and the members of the department. He was the first Italian-American to hold that post. He died at age 85, in 1999.

The Police Department has gone through many changes over the years as has the City of Baltimore. The influx of illegal drugs, along with the violent individuals and gangs that now dominate those rackets, has dramatically altered the dynamics of the local crime scene.

It’s clear “the cop walking the beat” tradition no longer fits the needs of public safety in my city. That practice is long lost, but my fond memories of the fine patrolmen who once-filled that role, live on.


Feature Image by Anja?#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy? from Pixabay

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