When Baltimore County police learned from residents that drugs and violence were getting out of hand in Garden Village, officers quickly moved in -- with stuffed chairs, end tables, lamps and an air hockey game.
Instead of using search warrants and battering rams, they took over a small two-story partial-brick rowhouse at 6133 St. Regis Road in the eastside community. Everybody calls the place "Police House."
It's not a command post from which drug raiders swoop out into the community. It is where children gather for puppet shows on the danger of AIDS, or for reading classes for themselves and the adults. Young teens troop in after school to play air hockey and talk basketball with Officers Brian Matthews and Mark Steindler, whom they call "Mr. Brian" and "Mr. Mark."
"I think the kids began to look at Officer Brian and Officer Mark more as their buddies or father figures than police officers," said Wannetta Thompson, president of the Garden Village Community Association. "And that in turn helped give the adults a different image of the police that has made them more willing to trust them."
Police House marks the first time in the 10-year history of the county's Community Oriented Police Enforcement (COPE) unit that officers actually set up house in a community. The rent and utilities are paid by the development's management.
Since moving in slightly more than one year ago, the COPE officers, community leaders and managers of the rowhouse-apartment complex have worked to clean the area of the drugs and violence that made many residents prisoners in their homes.
Drug activity is on the decline; shootings are almost non-existent. In the past year, police recorded only one shooting. A sense of pride is returning. But as Mrs. Thompson said: "We still have a ways to go."
A predominantly black rental community of 1,405 units, Garden Village straddles the city-county line between Gardenville and Rosedale. Interstate 95 separates the 23-year-old development from the rest of the county. About half of the small, three-bedroom town houses are on the county side.
Officer Matthews, who heads the COPE project at Garden Village, recalled his first impression.
"People were afraid to come out of their houses to go to meetings, afraid for what might happen to themselves or what might happen to their homes while they were gone," he said.
At night, along Marquette Road by the basketball court and playground, Mercedes-Benz and Mazda automobiles lined the curb, ready for the evening's drug sales. Children at nearby McCormick Elementary School told their teachers about the constant shootings and their fear.
"What was interesting, though, is that we found the kids instantly receptive to us," said Officer Matthews, a husky 13-year veteran with a ready smile.
Officers Matthews and Steindler borrowed a Police Athletic League van equipped with games and sports equipment, and drove it to the playground. They played football and basketball with the youngsters. The community now sponsors basketball teams for ages 8 to 16 that play teams from other rental developments.
Though police statistics aren't available to quantify the progress made in Garden Village, people who live there say they can see the difference. For one, the police presence has sent drug dealers looking for another, more conducive area. And, only one drug needle was found during a community cleanup in April. Needles and glassine bags with drug residue used to be common debris on the playground and in alleys.
On the city side of the development, a neighborhood services officer walks a foot patrol. The city Police Department also is trying to set up a block watch program. Next month, county and city police, the community association and local elected officials will walk through the neighborhood and encourage residents to take pride in the community.
In a sense, Garden Village's turnaround began with Police House. For the residents, it became a symbol of hope, Mrs. Thompson said. For years, a few intrepid residents tried to form a community association but could not overcome the violence and apathy.
"After the COPE unit set up home here, people started to become more active," Mrs. Thompson said.
In addition to the reading, math and Bible classes held at Police House, the place also serves as the association's meeting house, and where children get their preschool immunization shots. The association also hopes to open a family counseling center at Police House.
Until police budget cuts in February reduced the manpower and increased the area covered by the COPE unit, Officers Matthews and Steindler were at Police House daily. Since February, the two officers try to be at the house at least four days a week.
"We wanted the residents to feel comfortable with us and know that we are here to help them, to be part of their community," said Officer Matthews, who, along with his fellow COPE officers, has to make sure the grass is cut at Police House and the back yard is kept clean.