HotSpots success is by the book

Cooperative program credited with helping cut crime around state

Repeat offenders targeted

Hillendale binder puts pictures, information at officers' fingertips

June 01, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

They call it "the book."

Every police cruiser assigned to the Baltimore County neighborhood of Hillendale carries a copy of the white three-ring binder that identifies offenders on probation who live in the community. It's an innovation that has helped make Hillendale one of the state's most successful "HotSpots" communities.

In its first 18 months, the program that pairs police and probation officers and enlists community support has helped to lower crime 20 percent statewide in targeted areas. Now the state is planning to spend $3.5 million to double the number of communities participating by the end of the year.

"If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to stop a crime," says Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who launched the program in Maryland. "But you have to know who the villagers are."

In Hillendale, where crime has dropped almost 12 percent since the program began in 1997, the book is a directory of those "villagers" most likely to commit crime: previous offenders.

"This guy knows we're watching him day and night," says Baltimore County Police Officer Craig Smith, pointing to a photograph of a man whose record includes drug, handgun and assault crimes. "If an officer sees him hanging on the corner with a known drug dealer, they'll tell Nenan."

Nenan Mathew, the adult probation officer assigned to Hillendale, has helped Smith and other officers assemble the book and update it each week, listing the area's convicted offenders on probation.

Names, ages, criminal records, and where they live and hang out (including homes of their mothers and girlfriends) are in the book.

Pictures of the 30 or so offenders that Mathew, Smith and their colleagues think are most likely to commit crimes are included so that every patrol officer can keep an eye on them and report misbehavior to Mathew.

The book illustrates what every police officer knows and study after study has shown: Most crime is committed by a small group of repeat offenders.

Hillendale Officer Ray Bocelli says that "911 calls are a Band-Aid solution [to repeat crimes]. This is more than a Band-Aid solution."

Statewide, the numbers bear him out. During the first 18 months of the program, crime decreased in 24 of the 36 HotSpots areas, and in 19 of them crime dropped 10 percent or more.

"Crime overall in the HotSpots communities is dropping twice as fast as in the state," says Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which oversees the program. "That's really good news, because these have been the really tough areas to crack."

Just as important, says Sarbanes, is the change in the communities themselves -- their ability to solve problems that contribute to crime such as a cluster of pay phones that lure drug dealers or a building where drugs are openly sold. That kind of change is harder to measure, but it matters, he says.

"You can solve problems like that, where previously they'd just keep festering," Sarbanes says.

Townsend says HotSpots has succeeded because of its broad reach. "The main point is to get police, probation officers and citizen groups working with one another," she says. "I think it has put new energy in many efforts."

That energy is apparent in the weekly Wednesday afternoon meeting at Hillendale, where Mathew, Smith, Officers Gary Dahle and Carl Lindhorst, juvenile probation officer Walter Jackson and police Lt. L. W. Howard sit around a glossy wooden table in the Hillendale outreach center, a former Murray's Steaks store in a shopping center.

Mathew begins by going over his new cases, passing around the folders that chronicle each offender's criminal history and the terms of his probation. "The charge is conspiracy to distribute cocaine," he says of the first case.

Lindhorst reaches for the folder, and casts an experienced eye on a lengthy rap sheet, reading aloud as he goes. "Drugs, violation of probation, deadly weapons -- he's got plenty of stuff in here," he says.

"You met him yet? What does he seem like?" Howard asks Mathew.

"I know he's dealing drugs," Mathew says.

The police officers look at each other.

"He's in," says Smith, making a note to add the offender's picture to the book.

They work through six new adult cases and three juvenile ones, exchanging information, background and general impressions as they plan surprise house visits, probation checks and patrols for the next week.

The approach varies by offender. One of Jackson's cases is a youth teetering between a productive life and a criminal one. Those at the table pause for a moment to consider how to steer the teen-ager toward a good choice.

"How about the military? Is that an option?" Howard asks.

Employment, after-school programs, drug rehabilitation, community service -- the HotSpots team reviews a wide range of options in each case.

"The more you do, the more you realize what can be done," says Lindhorst as the meeting ends.

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