Charles citizens take notice of crime Vigilant neighbors are eyes and ears for sheriff's deputies

March 11, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

When Frederick E. Davis moved to Charles County in 1964, there were maybe three traffic lights, 30,000 people and very few locked doors from Beantown to Nanjemoy.

Thirty years later, the county's population had more than tripled, U.S. 301 was fast becoming one long traffic jam through Waldorf, and armed robbers were bedeviling the freshly built fast-food restaurants and strip shopping centers. Davis, the new sheriff of Charles County, had a problem on his hands.

Crime had followed the exodus of residents southward from Washington. But unlike their neighbors in Prince George's County, where similar growth 15 years ago brought a crime explosion that caught the police and populace by surprise, the folk of conservative Southern Maryland began at once to fight back with their approach to law and order.

"There were little minor things, vandalism, kid things," says Karen LeValley, who helped organize a crime watch in the Sentry Woods section of Waldorf. "I thought maybe it was the beginning of something more to come, and we wanted to hopefully nip it in the bud before it got worse."

Davis, 54, a retired state police barracks commander, and others encouraged crime watches, expanded community policing efforts -- establishing a substation in the St. Charles Town Center mall -- and began working closely with the Chamber of Commerce to alert businesses to robberies and other crimes.

After a spate of armed holdups in late 1995 and early 1996, including one in which a pizza restaurant manager was killed, local law enforcement teamed with a state police task force to saturate commercial areas with patrol cars and uniformed officers for three months. Robberies declined, dropping from 142 in 1995 to 111 in 1996.

Late last year, the county hired a full-time employee to organize and coordinate crime watch groups -- an unusual move for a small department. Gina Dugan has found residents eager to sign up, if somewhat fearful of retaliation, though not necessarily the sort of shoot-em-up punishment dealt to inner-city snitches.

"Sometimes the kids find out who told, and houses get egged," Dugan says. "We're battling that."

During the past three years, crime overall has continued to rise -- homicides up from 3 in 1993 to 11 last year, rapes up 89 percent, robberies up 69 percent. In that way, Charles County is not unique. In small towns across the state, bank robberies are becoming increasingly common and signs in hotel parking lots in places such as Salisbury caution visitors to lock their cars and remove valuables.

But Charles County police say they believe crime would be much worse without the active community crime watches. And in several recent high-profile cases, vigilant citizens have helped officers make quick arrests.

"The best thing the Charles County law enforcement has going for it is the people here," says Jimmy White, a retired Prince George's police captain working as a civilian public information officer for the sheriff. "They're really our eyes and ears."

When a woman shot a female companion and pushed her body from their car into a parking lot in January, a passer-by saw the car speed away and provided police with its license plate number. Deputies reached the suspect's home just as she was pulling into the driveway.

In early February, an off-duty deputy heard gunfire in his apartment complex, radioed for help and, within minutes, officers had arrested four men accused of shooting up Gallery Place apartments and wounding a woman and a child.

The Maryland Independent heralded the deputy's quick action by noting that "any citizen could have reported those shots. Fighting crime has to be a partnership between the police and its citizenry."

Such was the case two weeks later when a person waiting outside the Bank of Southern Maryland in Indian Head thought a man in a stocking cap and mirrored sunglasses looked "suspicious" and followed him for a short distance. Returning to the bank and learning that a robbery had just occurred, the person provided police with the suspicious man's license number. Deputies arrested a Prince George's County man about 5 p.m. that day at a motel in Camp Springs and recovered the money.

In many ways, Charles County has the mind-set of a rural community where people look out for each other. Even so, during the past decade, as tract houses have overtaken tobacco fields, the county has become a commuter suburb of Washington. Between 1990 and 1995, the population soared from 101,000 to 116,000 people and more than 5,200 homes were built. The number of cars registered in the county increased from 54,000 in 1985 to 92,000 in 1995, a gain of 70 percent.

"This county definitely is not rural anymore," says Judy Rye, executive director of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce. "We really want to look forward to do what we can to make sure that [crime] doesn't get here or that it doesn't happen again."

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