New neighbors in blue send criminals scurrying

January 18, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Staff Writer

There was a time when a lone police officer might have hesitated before responding to an emergency at Stevens Forest Apartments in Oakland Mills village without a backup.

Now it's not unusual to see an officer on patrol stopping to pass a football with neighborhood kids.

Residents, apartment managers and Howard County police say a satellite police office opened in a vacant apartment last spring has helped bring the community together and cut crime. Drug dealers have been driven away, and for the first time in years, residents have been less apprehensive talking with the authority figures in blue.

"It made the kids feel safer," said Gwen Gibson, president of the Stevens Forest Residential Organization. "It just brought everybody together."

The satellite office has been such a success, police say, they are considering one for Guilford Gardens, an apartment and town house community near Route 32 and Interstate 95, sometime in the next few months.

The satellite office is one element of a community-based policing effort initiated by county police Chief James Robey when he became head of the department nearly three years ago. A Citizen's Police Academy, a Citizen's Advisory Council and drug education programs in schools have been implemented. "We need to be more visible and more active if we're going to have an impact on crime," Chief Robey said.

Several times a day, four or five officers who patrol neighborhoods in East Columbia stop in the satellite office in the 5800 block of Stevens Forest Road to fill out police reports. They sometimes eat their lunches in the rent-free apartment. Phone bills are paid by the county.

Officers spend as much as 40 hours a month in the office, which opened in April 1993. Also, administrative officers from the Crime Prevention Unit staff the office at least six hours a week.

"We tried to renew the faith residents had in law enforcement," said patrol Sgt. Tara Ball, who has worked for the Crime Prevention Unit. "They wanted a new lease on life; we hope we gave it to them."

Improvements began in 1990 when the management changed the name of the 108-unit apartment community from Copperstone, which it held since opening in 1971, to Stevens Forest Apartments. Then in 1991, residents and the apartment management, NHP Property Management Inc., met with officers and discussed concerns such as loitering, littering, trespassing and drugs.

"It definitely has had an impact," said Patricia Goines, property manager. Ms. Goines said the community-oriented policing initiative, along with the name change, has helped improve the image of the neighborhood.

Before opening the satellite office, police began increasing patrols, narcotics officers stepped up their efforts and the management evicted drug dealers and others identified as troublemakers. Police say residents who once kept their mouths shut and their shades pulled down became comfortable enough to walk over and report suspicious activity to officers. Others wrote down tag numbers of unfamiliar vehicles.

"Some residents were scared; others were silenced in fear," said Mrs. Gibson, an eight-year resident, who believes her car was scratched and dented because she spoke out. "Enough is enough. We have to do what we have to do."

When police focused their efforts on the community in 1991, the complex accounted for 411 service calls that year. In 1992, 266 calls were logged; and in 1993, service calls had been reduced to 142.

Nellie Squirrel, 57, who moved to the complex when it first opened in 1971, said the area was quiet then. But in the past few years, strangers had been sitting on the steps in front of her apartment and standing on corners. "It used to be terrible," she said.

"There was a time when I wouldn't even go out and empty my trash," Ms. Squirrel said.

Although some problems have lingered, residents say police seem to have made tangible gains.

"Typically, we go in and weed the bad seeds out," said Lt. Jeffrey Spaulding, head of the vice and narcotics division. "But it doesn't have to get to a critical problem before we go back and do something about it."

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