Montgomery teams prosecutors with police on the street

Community policing stresses familiarity with neighborhoods

July 06, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

WHEATON -- Law enforcement here has a new motto: Think small.

Small, as in rowdy teens, neighborhood speeders, seedy houses.

Stop those little things and prevent some of the bigger ills. The philosophy has been embraced nationwide as community policing. Now it's being mimicked by prosecutors in Montgomery County.

State's Attorney Douglas Gansler is putting his prosecutors out on the street, teaming them with police officers to deal with neighborhood problems.

At a news conference this morning, flanked by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Gansler is to announce the start of a community prosecution program.

The idea is not new. Gansler saw its effectiveness when he worked under Holder, then U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. But Gansler says Montgomery is among the first in the country to convert its entire criminal justice operation to community-based prosecution.

"We want to make prosecutors problem-solvers, not case-processors," he says. "It's an incredibly effective system, and it's where every prosecutor's office will be in the next 10 years."

Traditionally, prosecutors work on specific types of cases, such as homicides, domestic violence, narcotics and sex offenses. Gansler is assigning each of his lawyers to one of five teams that correspond to the police districts: Wheaton/Glenmont, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Germantown and Rockville.

Each county school will be assigned an assistant state's attorney to work with administrators on problems. Team members also will be required to attend community meetings.

"We want our prosecutors to know their turf -- the criminals, the officers, the community and what's important to the residents," he says. "Our county is so large, more than 500 square miles, that it just screams out for community prosecution."

Police Capt. John King calls the Wheaton/Glenmont district that he commands "Little America."

The 89-square-mile district of 238,000 residents stretches from the Capital Beltway to the Howard County line. It is home to a growing Latino population and Leisure World, one of the state's largest retirement communities. It has distinct neighborhoods, sprawling commercial districts and huge regional parks.

King and prosecution team leader Debra Dwyer say that by joining forces, they should be able to react faster to residents' problems.

"People want to know where to go for help, who they can talk to and whether there is enough evidence to file charges," says Dwyer. "But sometimes we can nip things in the bud before they become a criminal issue."

King says his officers will be able to discuss with the lawyers crime trends and issues such as search and seizure, recent court rulings and how they can become better witnesses in court.

And, he says, a neighborhood can feel more confident about getting a response when officers and prosecutors attack a problem together.

"There's more accountability," he says. "If we say we'll look into something, we know we have to go back and tell them what we did."

Supporters of the program say its success will be obvious in the residents' quality of life.

Three years ago, the District of Columbia established a pilot program in one of its seven police districts. Introducing the program, Holder said his office would "no longer be a big concrete and glass building where people go only after they've been victimized."

The announcement was greeted with skepticism from District 5 officers and the community, a working-class neighborhood north of the Capitol that includes Gallaudet University.

Ross Swope, then police commander of the district, recalls his lack of enthusiasm as he attended the highly publicized news conference. "I thought, `Here we go again. Another big idea that will wither on the vine after nine months and we'll have nothing to show for it.' "

But after six months, he became a true believer and now writes laudatory articles about community prosecution for national law enforcement publications. "It's the missing link in law enforcement," he says.

Supporters of the Washington program say an office-bound prosecutor misses the small cases that affect the quality of life.

Brenda Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney who helped lead the District 5 program in its early days, remembers such a case.

One of her first calls was from a distraught woman complaining about trash outside a nearby house. Johnson's initial reaction was, "If it's so bad, why doesn't she just clean it up?"

Then she drove to the house. "I was appalled. The trash was knee high. No one would want to live on that block."

Johnson tracked down the absentee owner, who quickly cleaned up the property. With that, Johnson earned the woman's thanks and began building a relationship with residents, who passed along crime tips.

"Citizens get to tell us what is important as opposed to us sitting there and waiting for crimes to happen," she says.

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