Pilot clinic focuses on probationers 'Community' method proving effective, officers, residents say

'Now, we've got it right'

State will expand Prince George's Co. program statewide

September 15, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

PALMER PARK -- Beverly Malone is in trouble, and she knows it.

She lost her job a couple of weeks ago. She quarreled with her father, and now neither he nor her probation officer can find her. Both, though, can guess where she is -- on the street somewhere, seeking the short-term solace of heroin and cocaine.

But she doesn't stay out there for long this time. Instead, she finds her way to a Barlowe Road strip mall where a tiny storefront office houses the state's pilot project for "community probation."

Last week, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announced an expansion of this Prince George's County program, saying the state will begin community probation in 35 areas as part of Operation Hot Spot, a statewide crime-fighting initiative aimed at troubled neighborhoods.

In Palmer Park, two probation officers and one community police officer handle only probationers who live in this community of 7,500, best known as the birthplace of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. They had a caseload of 52 adults and 17 juveniles at last count. All are violent offenders with a history of drug problems.

Desk-sitting doesn't get the job done here. Instead, the three officers visit probationers without warning, compiling and using an extensive knowledge of their clients' habits, friends, family and jobs to know when to look for them at home.

The Prince George's pilot program began a year ago, based on a Boston model that helped end a wave of juvenile homicides in that city. Boston police and probation officers joined forces on juvenile probation cases to keep a close watch on known offenders.

In Palmer Park, it doesn't take long to see the program's effectiveness. On a weekday afternoon, the appearance of Malone in the office has set off silent alarms in the three supervisory officers.

"Where you been, girl?" says Cpl. Tony Avendorph, the Prince George's County police officer assigned to the pilot program. His greeting is echoed by probation officers Bev Hart and Howard Trott, who are busy with other clients.

With a flip of her cornrows, Malone throws a jaunty "I've been around" over her shoulder.

Her swagger is just for show. So eager is she to see Trott that she slides quietly past another probationer who has stood up for a moment and takes his chair before he's abandoned it. Unaware, he almost sits down on her.

"You have to wait for a minute," says Hart.

"Sit over here," says Avendorph, pointing to a seat.

She does, fidgeting, drumming on the table, flipping through a newspaper until Trott is free and the chair is hers.

Trott begins to question her, and the bravado turns to tears. Yes, she has run away. Yes, she is back on drugs. Yes, she has been hanging with the wrong people.

"I need a drug program. I need a job," she wails.

"She's still high," Avendorph tells a visitor matter-of-factly.

While Trott makes calls, the other two keep Malone talking. An hour later, they've mapped out a plan: She will go home to her father's house tonight and into a drug rehabilitation program tomorrow.

Trott will take her there himself. He has tried to get her in the program for three months, but hasn't been able to get bureaucratic approval. Now, she's in crisis -- so he will put her in rehab and deal with the paperwork later.

This is the last resort for her, and they know it. So does she.

"I can't go to nobody on the street and ask to reach out," says the 34-year-old single mother. "I need help, I don't want to go back to the way I was."

She is certainly the most desperate of the day's dozen or so clients, but none of the histories are nice: Breaking and entering, assault, robbery, drug possession are well represented.

"These are not choirboys and choirgirls," Avendorph says dryly.

Some visit the office, a small, bare space donated by a local business, for their mandatory weekly check-in. Others just stop by to talk, to proudly display a pay stub, to banter briefly. Still others are not in the program but want help anyway -- a gang member wants to get back into school after expulsion last year, and someone else needs advice on a job interview. The office is short on supplies -- a single telephone with a long cord gets passed from desk to desk, pens are hard to find, and no one has seen the phone book lately -- but it's long on energy and drive.

Do they believe this program works? You bet.

Can it be duplicated across the state? Yes, if .

"If they want to take the time and make the effort, it will work. It's taken a lot of work," says Hart. It took time, she says, to establish a local network -- community activists, local employers, social services and schools -- they can tap into when a probationer needs help to stay on the straight and narrow.

But after a year, they've built a network. The three are known in the community as a resource and as respected and even popular individuals. Some residents have even begun to play Avendorph's cruiser number -- 153 -- in the Lotto. "They win, too," he says.

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