When Ryan Patterson and his son joined dozens of others at the Baltimore School for the Arts Recital Hall for a public meeting on May 14, Patterson knew to expect some tension in the room. This assembly concerned the Downtown Bike Network—its segments on Madison and Centre streets, specifically—and bike lanes are, as Patterson puts it, “a hot issue that a lot of people have opinions about.”
What Patterson didn’t expect was a physical altercation. Soon after the meeting began, a “commotion” erupted in the back of the room, Patterson says.
“The crowd jumped out of their seats, and this white, bald guy in the back of the room lifted this young, black guy up by the throat,” he says.
Nicole Runde, a cyclist who was also in the audience that night, says she “looked over and I just saw one of the gentlemen who was in the back of the room reach across a row of chairs and grab a guy by the neck,” and later “pull him kind of towards the wall.”
“It was just really startling,” Runde says. “There had been some back and forth kind of comments, people were being respectful but disagreeing. This was totally out of left field and a super overreaction. We were just talking about a bike lane.”
The scuffle soon ended, and the attacker left the room. Some said he was approached by a school resource officer nearby, but was not detained.
The man on the receiving end was Austin Davis, a demographics analyst with the Baltimore City Department of Planning. A Department of Planning spokeswoman said he was there as a private citizen, and not representing the agency.
His alleged attacker, Charles Mudra, whose address is listed as 1201 E. Cold Spring Lane, a Baltimore City Fire Department station, received a court summons the following day. He’s been charged with second-degree assault, and is due to appear in court June 25.
City salary records indicate Mudra is employed as an emergency vehicle support driver, and has been working for the fire department since 2008.
Davis did not respond to a message requesting comment for this story, and an employee at the fire station listed as Mudra’s address said he was not at work today.
Asked about the incident, Chief Roman Clark, a spokesman for the fire department, said the “department is aware that there was a situation, and currently, it’s under investigation.” He confirmed the investigation involves a fire department employee, but declined to identify Mudra as the subject.
Clark noted that the employee “was not right there representing the fire department at all,” indicating that Mudra was attending as a private citizen and not representing his employer.
The altercation erupted shortly after the issue of fire code came up, attendees said. Fire code has become a looming concern for bike lane projects since spring of 2017, when residents near Potomac Street in Canton asked the Department of Transportation to halt installation of a two-way, north-south protected bike lane by invoking the International Fire Code standards the city has adopted. The regulations call for 20 feet of road clearance for fire engines, and 26 feet of clearance for ladders and other equipment.
After a short court battle, the city agreed to install the Potomac Street bike lane, but officials also announced they were halting all other bike lane projects to ensure they comply with fire apparatus clearance regulations. (Amid those ongoing delays, Bikemore discovered through a records request that the city continued carrying out non-bike lane-related projects on streets that weren’t up to international fire code standards.)
DOT staffers have since been working on a redesign for the Downtown Bike Network to suit fire code standards, Bikemore leaders say. Last week’s public meetings—another was held at Dunbar High School on May 15—took place to collect public feedback on the plan.
Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish condemned the violence that unfolded at the May 14 meeting, calling Mudra’s alleged actions “completely out of bounds.”
“The fact that a public meeting about street designs that improve safety resulted in an employee of the Fire Department physically assaulting a fellow city employee attending the meeting as a private citizen is shocking,” she said.
Cornish called for a “full dismissal” of Mudra by the fire department, and said fire officials “should take explicit steps to ensure that other employees recognize that a disagreement around a street design specification—one that other cities have opted to reject—in no way gives them permission to bully and incite fear in residents.”
Asked whether the fire department has rules for employees taking public stances on issues relevant to their job—such as fire code—Clark said, “We do have rules and regulations that govern our members either on or off the job, either on-duty or off-duty. You’re supposed to conduct yourself in a manner of not going outside of breaking the law or doing anything unlawful.”
Despite the contention of the May 14 meeting at the Baltimore School for the Arts, DOT officials are not yet planning any changes for how they conduct public meetings on bike lanes.
“The Department of Transportation conducts hundreds of meetings each year and has not encountered any incidents of physical altercations in the past,” DOT spokeswoman Kathy Dominick said in a statement. “We feel this is an isolated incident; however, DOT is reviewing current guidelines to maintain a peaceful environment during community meetings and is seeking advice from the [Baltimore Police Department].”
Patterson, who works for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts but was attending as a parent and citizen, said he wanted to be there for his son, who uses the Downtown Bike Network to get to school.
“That was pretty disturbing,” he said of the alleged attack by Mudra. “And to have it happen at my son’s school, with him there…to have somebody lash out and hurt somebody in the middle of it, is just completely disgraceful, I think.”
Runde has seen flare-ups at other bike lane meetings around town. At one in spring of 2017, concerning a proposal to install a two-way protected bike lane down the median of 33rd Street from Lake Montebello to Charles Village, she watched people shout and threaten each other. She said her brother-in-law attended another meeting in Roland Park, held April 12, which included similar verbal unrest among attendees; he had described the mood as “very hostile.”
“It seems to bring out a particular level of rage in certain people that I don’t understand,” she said.