Their visitors may be prosecuted Frederick's effort to cut housing crime goes too far, some say

July 31, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- At this city's public housing projects these days, crime is way down. There's less drug dealing, fewer gunshots ringing across the playgrounds and not as many people being shot. Many residents, though, say their lives have never been worse.

The reason has been efforts by Frederick's public housing authority to ban visits by those who don't live on its properties.

Enforced over the past four years, the ban has cut crime at Frederick's public housing complexes by more than half. In the process, police have arrested grandsons visiting their grandmothers, cousins visiting cousins, friends visiting friends. One father was arrested and jailed on a trespassing charge when he tried to visit his infant daughter.

In all, more than 900 people have been permanently banned from the city's six housing authority properties. They include people without criminal records -- even a 10-year-old boy.

The ban has raised a tough issue: the right of free association vs. the right of residents to live there without the fear of violence.

"It's like we're in prison because we don't have no money," says Kizzy Diggs, 20, whose baby girl's father was arrested when he tried to visit their apartment. "Why should we be gated up and prisoned up? It's for no reason. They're picking on the wrong people."

Diggs and her daughter, Andresia Diggs, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Frederick City Housing Authority and the Frederick Police Department.

The suit, filed in May by the Baltimore-based civil rights group Public Justice Center, seeks to have the court void the policy of arresting trespassers. It also seeks unspecified damages for five plaintiffs who have been kept from family members because of the ban.

"It's creating criminals rather than keeping criminals off the property," says Deborah Thompson, an attorney with Public Justice. "They're trying to kill a fly with a stick of dynamite, and they're doing it through unconstitutional means."

The policy has been enforced with great energy since 1994. Under the ban, outsiders can come to the housing complexes only if they are visiting residents. In addition, visitors who have been charged with crimes on any housing authority complex are banned from all of the properties.

But in practice, among those banned by police and private security guards are people who have never faced legal charges and who are trying to visit relatives or friends, say those familiar with the suit.

Police approach visitors to the property and ask them for identification. If they are not residents of the housing complex, their names are placed on a log and they are escorted off the property, the suit says. If they are caught on the property again, they are arrested on trespassing charges.

Arrest numbers are being compiled, but those involved in the suit estimate that several hundred people have been arrested for trespassing over the past four years.

All of the plaintiffs in the suit had relatives on housing authority properties or lived there themselves. Only one has an adult criminal record, according to a check by The Sun. Public Justice says dozens of people with clean records have been banned -- an unconstitutional infringement, it contends, on the residents' freedoms of association and privacy.

The director of the housing authority, Teresa Ham, does not dispute that people with clean records may be banned. "Does it happen? It might," she said in an interview last week. "But I don't have any control on how the policy is carried out."

That policy has never been put in writing, so exactly how it is supposed to be enforced is not clear. Police say they have banned only visitors who appear to have no business on the property, following the directions of the housing authority.

In recent years, housing authorities in several parts of the country have stepped up efforts to fight crime in their facilities.

Drug sweeps, checkpoints and identification requirements have become common. Tenants of Baltimore City's public housing properties must have an identification card, and outsiders are permitted only if they are visiting tenants. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has also encouraged local housing authorities to evict tenants who commit crimes.

But nowhere else have visitors been altogether banned from the properties, according to those involved in the Frederick lawsuit.

In Frederick, the efforts appear to be working. By the housing authority's count, there were 205 drug-related incidents on its properties in 1993. Last year, there were only 78 drug-related incidents.

"The bottom line is there's been a significant reduction in various types of nuisance calls, and homicides are down," says Lt. Patrick O'Brien, a spokesman for the Frederick Police Department.

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