Reclaiming Howard Communities

December 12, 1991

Traditional police tactics have been only marginally effective in combating the drugs and mayhem that often plague subsidized housing projects. The police swoop down, arrest a few offenders and the illegal activity starts up again. Howard Police Chief James Robey thinks he's hit upon a solution that will not only stem the tide of drugs but forge a healthier interplay between police and community.

The experiment under way in Columbia's Stevens Forest Apartments, a neighborhood troubled with open-air drug markets, is a partnership between residents and police. This approach isn't new; it's being used with some success in urban areas all over the country. The idea is to get input from residents on what the trouble is, who is causing it and how to stop it. Take drug dealing. The traditional answer calls for beefed up patrols; a community-oriented strategy might favor better street lights or the removal of obstructions shielding illicit activity.

What Chief Robey envisions is a hybrid approach that sends a clear message to offenders. Police will work closely with the firm that manages the complex to identify and evict residents involved in criminal activity. Nuisance violations will be vigorously enforced. Beat cops will patrol the streets.

This method is neither a complete solution nor free of pitfalls. Community residents must be brought into the decision-making early so aggressive policing isn't seen as harassment. So too, must the officers charged with implementing the plan. Old-line officers who define their job as making arrests and writing tickets may be uncomfortable with the notion of getting involved in community problems as a means of solving crime.

What's important is that Chief Robey is looking for innovative solutions to problems that have stubbornly resisted traditional cures. This is what the community of Stevens Forest deserves.

Success, though, depends on the residents themselves, many of whom deeply resent disruption and violence in their neighborhood caused by a few individuals. Too often, outsiders -- including the police -- tacitly assume illicit behavior somehow operates under community sanction. Nothing could be further from the truth. If residents are given a chance to help shape this program, community policing could prove its worth.

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