Village shifts its focus to crime Harper's Choice to confer with experts on new strategies

May 31, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber and Dana Hedgpeth | Del Quentin Wilber and Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

It was not long ago that Columbia's Harper's Choice Village Center seemed to be given up for dead -- a closed supermarket, deserted storefronts and a reputation for petty crime drove away shoppers who might have been attracted to the stores it did have.

The opening of a Safeway in March and a $3.5 million renovation have solved many of the center's image problems. Now Howard County police are launching a program to tackle crime.

In two weeks, police are scheduled to meet with national experts, Columbia Association officials, village residents and administrators from county agencies to develop better crime-fighting and prevention programs.

That meeting will be run by the Community Policing Consortium, a national group of police foundations and organizations. Howard County police, who contacted the consortium this year during a review of department community policing, hope to create a blueprint for programs that can be used in Howard and elsewhere.

Consortium officials have held two similar seminars in other cities and plan more.

Sgt. Karen Shinham, who heads the Howard County police Community Services Bureau, said such seminars are valuable.

"A lot of times, we look at statistics and find the problems," she said. "Then we sit down with residents, and they're seeing completely different issues."

The first steps toward tackling crime came with the renovated village center, the new grocery store and better lighting.

"The community is policing itself just by being there," Helen Sutusky, a former member of the Harper's Choice Village Board, said of the increased traffic at the center.

Polishing the image

Many police officers, officials and residents say that the purpose the new program is not only to reduce crime, but to improve the image of Columbia's third-oldest village.

"We could have chosen any village [for this program], but Harper's Choice has a little bit of everything," said Capt. Michael Kessler, Southern District commander, referring to the community's diversity of housing. "There was no specific reason [we chose it]. Harper's Choice has suffered from poor public perception that's totally unwarranted."

While crime is down in the county and in Harper's Choice in the first three months of the year, the village did see increases in several types of crimes last year. Assaults increased from 129 in 1996 to 199 in 1997; burglaries doubled; and thefts rose from 168 to 187.

Crime fears

Some attribute crime fears to the mix of housing in the area -- from million-dollar houses bordering Hobbits Glen golf course to low-income apartments. Many worry that the village center's enclosed design contributes to its image as a troublemaker's delight.

"We have been known as the 'hangout village' with high crime," said Wendy Tzuker, the village manager.

Last year, James N. Robey, then Howard's police chief, held a town meeting at the village center after residents said they were concerned about loitering and assaults in the center.

Involvement essential

Police say community involvement is essential to ease such fears. At the meeting in two weeks, two officials from the Community Policing Consortium will help Harper's Choice residents develop ideas to further reduce crime.

Lt. Bill McKeldin, who heads the community policing effort here, said the meeting will develop models to apply to other places.

The consortium visited Frederick and Richmond, Va., where it held similar forums for residents and police.

Consortium officials plan many more. The organization's executive director, William Matthews, said Howard County was chosen because its police force is considered a progressive department that would help experts develop programs for communities nationwide.

In Frederick, officials said, the April seminar helped improve police-community relations by allowing residents to vent concerns on issues such as race relations.

"This is a stepping stone to focus on public safety issues, not a panacea," said Lt. Bryan Brown, commander of the patrol division for the Frederick police.

2$

Complaints from Harper's Choice

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...Jan.-Mar.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1994 .. ..1995 .. ..1996 .. ..1997 ..1998

Assault .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .132 .. .. .92 .. ...129 .. ...199 .. .33

Breaking and entering .. .. ...69 .. .. .33 .. .. .61 .. ...122 .. .19

Drugs .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .69 .. .. .38 .. .. .51 .. .. .72 .. .34

Disorderly conduct .. .. .. ..239 .. .. 145 .. ...217 .. .. 284 .. .58

Loitering .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .0 .. .. ..5 .. .. .10 .. .. .22 .. ..6

Noise .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 106 .. .. .28 .. .. .87 .. .. .94 ....26

Robbery .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...9 .. .. ..8 .. .. .11 .. .. .20 .. ..6

Theft .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 171 .. .. .95 .. ...168 .. ...187 .. .42

Theft from vehicle .. .. .. ..128 .. .. .56 .. ...141 .. ...179 .. .14

SOURCE: Howard County Police Department

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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