Broader police patrols proposed

Plan would grant full access to city's 10 villages

January 10, 1999|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN STAFF

To ease residents' increasing concerns about crime, Oakland Mills' top two village officials are promoting a plan that would change the way Howard County police provide security for Columbia's 87,000 residents.

Officers patrol only a small part of the planned community's 3,100 acres of "open space" -- which includes pathways and playgrounds -- because the land is privately owned by the Columbia Association.

After recent incidents in Oakland Mills, including gunfire between two unidentified men near the village center in November, David Hatch, chairman of the village board, and Earl Jones, the vice chairman, want to extend police patrolling rights throughout association property in Columbia -- a move supported by police and by Chick Rhodehamel, the assistant director of the association's open-space department.

"For large areas like the open space, it only makes sense that the police have the ability to patrol those without special permission," said Hatch, who plans to urge the Columbia Council to approve the policy change.

Granting police full access to association property in Columbia's 10 villages would be the first step toward addressing what residents, officers and officials say can be a confusing and inefficient way of providing security in the 31-year-old planned community.

In Oakland Mills, residents complain about loitering, drinking, drug use and vandalism in and around the village center.

The Metro Food Market, surrounding stores and the parking lot are policed by Columbia Management Inc., a division of the Rouse Co. The path behind The Other Barn is controlled by the Columbia Association. The independently owned Royal Farm store provides its own security.

The result is a patchwork of properties under different authorities, which police and village officials must navigate in trying to enforce "nuisance" laws.

There have been three shootings in Columbia, one of which took place on an association pathway in Harper's Choice, during the past four months. In the most recent incident, a 30-year-old woman delivering pizza to a Harper's Choice apartment complex was robbed and shot in the jaw Jan. 1 after she tried to run away. She survived the attack.

Other villages are taking steps to address the "patchwork" security problem.

In Long Reach, police are trying to establish a universal system for "banning" from the village center people who have been caught committing such acts as drinking in public or vandalizing a storefront. Police say such a system would help officers identify and arrest trespassers.

Columbia Management Inc., a Rouse Co. division that provides security at the village centers, keeps a list of people not allowed on the Long Reach property, as does the nearby Exxon station.

"[Banning] is effective," said Howard County Officer Lisa Bridgeforth, who is assigned to Long Reach's "Hot Spot," an area designated to receive state funds to fight crime. But she added that banning is "not as effective as it could be" because of the varied approaches to security.

During the past several months, the Columbia Association has added security to its list of priorities. At a recent meeting with County Executive James N. Robey, Association President Deborah O. McCarty and Columbia Council Chairwoman Norma Rose stressed the importance of adding certain properties to the list of those that police can patrol.

Only about 15 percent of association open space is covered under a county ordinance known as Title 19, which gives officers the right to enter private property without the owner's permission.

While McCarty has not endorsed granting police Title 19 access for all of Columbia, she said the association would work with villages to determine what level of coverage would be appropriate.

Police can enter private property without permission if they are responding to a complaint or have reason to believe that a crime has been committed. But, because Columbia is not incorporated and its land is private, officers may regularly patrol only 475 of the community's 3,081 acres of open space, according to a Title 19 lot inventory provided by the association.

The association generally has added properties to the inventory, such as the Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs neighborhood centers in Oakland Mills, on a "problem spot" basis.

Discussion of Title 19 in Columbia is not new. Officials say Robey proposed blanket police access several years ago when he was chief of police. Fred Pryor, then the Columbia Association vice president for open-space management, supported the proposal.

Since then, the certification of properties, which requires Columbia Council approval and a site check by county police, has stalled.

Sgt. Morris Carroll, a police spokesman, said the department put the process on hold because the Community Services Division, which conducts the site checks, has been understaffed.

"I personally would like to see some sort of resolution, that all of it would be acceptable under Title 19 property," said Rhodehamel.

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