Fire destroys building set for police use

August 16, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

DENTON -- An early morning arson yesterday that ruined a building being renovated for the police department's bicycle patrol will not deter plans to open a police substation in a troubled neighborhood, town officials said.

Police said someone set fire to the building on the corner of Fifth and High streets shortly after 3 a.m. Monday, a day after vandals broke windows, kicked in doors and tried to burn the two-story structure with Molotov cocktails.

Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Allen Ward said a flammable liquid was ignited inside the building on the ground level and that the fire spread from the front to the rear and upstairs. Damage was estimated at $50,000.

Police Chief James Harmon said the building, which at various times served as a residence, a store and a bar, was to have been reopened Sept. 1 as a police substation. One of the officers, he said, planned to move into a second-floor apartment.

The town began looking for a building to house a satellite police station for its bicycle patrol in June after residents of the nearby Riverview Gardens housing complex asked for protection against crowds of youths that gathered late at night near the entrance to the low-income residences.

"Everybody certainly knew the intended use," said Chief Harmon. "It was common knowledge that that was going to be our facility. One can only assume we were the target."

In June 1993, racial unrest rocked Riverview Gardens and this Caroline County government seat of 3,000 residents when a crowd of 200 pelted police with stones and bottles after two white officers arrested a black juvenile. A small, wooden building that served as the complex's office and laundry was set afire.

That incident followed a January melee at the local fire hall where police used batons and pepper spray to control an angry crowd outside a teen dance.

Some black residents alleged that the town's all-white police force singled out black youths for rough treatment. But a state police inquiry later concluded that officers had acted properly.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer toured Denton last summer and pledged to help with summer jobs and housing grants. In June, the Maryland Commission on Human Relations issued a study of Denton that called the small town on the Choptank River "a community on the edge" because of racial tensions.

Residents of the 80-unit Riverview Gardens said yesterday that racial problems still exist in Denton but that they were unaware of any specific incidents that may have caused the arson.

"They just don't like the police," said one woman.

Some residents speculated that the fire resulted from a combination of factors, including a long-standing animosity toward police and the death Friday night of a Denton man.

Emotions ran high over the weekend after 22-year-old Herman E. Savoy, who was visiting his girlfriend and her mother in their Riverview Gardens apartment, died after he was shot in the head with a .22-caliber revolver Friday night.

Police are still investigating the shooting, but they believe that the wound was self-inflicted.

Shortly before Sunday morning's attack on the police substation, police dispersed a noisy group of what Chief Harmon called "youthful mourners" who had gathered on High Street.

Although about a third of the town's population is black, there are no minorities on the nine-man police force. In the past, a black was Denton's police chief and other black officers have been on the force.

Attempts to recruit minorities have not worked, said Chief Harmon, who joined the force in March. About a quarter of the 44 people who applied for a recent opening in the department were black, but none qualified, he said.

"Any small town has problems recruiting minorities," he said. Last year, a black police officer left Denton for a job in nearby Easton.

"The majority of the people like the police department," said the chief. "Obviously, for something like this to happen, there's a malcontent out there."

Town Manager Terry S. Fearins said Denton officials will try to find another house where the police substation can be set up.

The house that burned is owned by Cabell Corp., a management firm in charge of the Riverview Gardens residences.

Chief Harmon said Cabell had renovated the interior and was about to lease it to the town.

"This is a little bit of a setback," he said. "We're disappointed, but we're not going to throw our hands up and quit."

The state fire marshal's office is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and state police are helping with the investigation, Mr. Ward said.

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