On any given night, 31-year-old Gwendolyn Gibson says most of her neighbors are afraid to step outside their doors at Stevens Forest Apartments, out of fear for the strangers who use the complex as an open-air drug market.
Residents at the subsidized housing project in Columbia complain about drug dealers in cars with Washington and New York license plates who show up on weekends to ply their trade.
"Children are afraid to play in the playground and would rather go play in the road," said Gibson, who has lived at the complex for six years with her two children. "Some people say that it's safer to sleep on the floor because you never know when a bullet will come through your window."
But now, after nearly two decades of responding to complaints from residents about drug dealing, fights, car thefts and teen-agers loitering in the parking lot, police have begun a new strategy.
Police administrators last month began using Stevens Forest Apartments to test what they call "problem oriented policing," a new tactic in which community residents, the apartment management and the police look together for long-term solutions to crime problems.
"Traditional police methods are not working," said county Police Chief James N. Robey. "We would come in and make arrests and things would get quiet for a while, and then it would start up again. We weren'tfinding solutions."
Robey said patrol officers have made about a dozen arrests at the complex in the last month and, during those arrests, the officers have been encouraged to make contact with residentsto find out who the troublemakers are and how problems can be resolved.
"It's sort of like when you ask yourself, 'Why am I going backto a burglar alarm five times in the same night?' " he said. "You can go back and turn off the alarm five times, or you can go back once and find out what's tripping the alarm."
Police will be conductinga survey of the apartment residents, hope to start a youth league for the 127 children who live at Stevens Forest, and are doing periodicsearches with drug-sniffing dogs -- just some of the methods they hope will become routine in their new style of policing.
The effect of the community policing concept has two distinct advantages, Robey said. Not only does it target the root of neighborhood problems, but it also puts police officers in a more active role in the neighborhood network.
Police and county officials last week held a community meeting attended by 40 Stevens Forest residents. Howard County substance abuse coordinator Joyce Brown attended the meeting, at the Oakland Mills village center Other Barn, and said she witnessed a drug dealtransacted in plain sight.
In attempting to understand the underlying concerns the residents of the 108-unit subsidized complex face daily, police hope a survey will shed light on the extent of the problems.
"If we find there is a lot of young people congregating late at night, then we want to find out why they are doing it and come up with alternative ways for them to spend time," Robey said.
One potential solution proposed by some police officials might be the formation of a police athletic league that will offer boxing and nighttime basketball leagues.
Police also plan to work closely with the apartment complex management firm, National Housing Partnership, to identify residents involved in criminal activity and evict them through a civil proceeding.
Although the police initiative has generated some hope among residents, there still is a "wait-and-see attitude," said Patricia
Goines, manager of the complex.
The key to solving the problems at the complex is "to make the drug market go soft," Goines said.
"Residents here are very interested in cleaning up crime and drug problems in their community," she said. "We believe most of the crime and drugs are brought in by others, and our residents feel hurt that this is happening to them."
In an effort to improve the neighborhood's image, the complex last year dropped its old name of Copperstone Circle because some felt it had acquired a stigma as a problem neighborhood.
Beyond the public relations and problem-solvingapproaches to crime at Stevens Forest Apartments, the police intend a tough response, said Capt. Richard E. Hall, the department's patrolcommander.
"There will be strict enforcement action for any nuisance violations we see there, such as disorderly conduct and drinking in public, as well as drug dealing," Hall said. "We want to send a message to drug dealers this is not place to deal drugs."
Beat patrols will walk daily at the apartment complex and across the street at the Oakland Mills village center, and a tactical officer with a K-9 dog will patrol primarily on weekend nights, Hall said.
Besides an overt display, police said they will depend on tips from the community to help their undercover officers arrest dealers outside the complex and nearby village shopping center.