Residents place focus on crime

Porch lights go on, neighbors go out to make statement

`We still have work to do'

Parties and picnics mark 16th annual National Night Out

August 04, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef and Jamal E. Watson | Nancy A. Youssef and Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

Many residents attended parties and picnics in front yards as Howard County participated in a crime prevention program during yesterday's National Night Out.

The 16th annual crime-fighting event calls on residents across the country to turn on their porch lights and go outside to meet neighbors and police officers.

About two dozen Howard communities participated in this year's activities, which were organized by the county Police Department's community services section and featured appearances by McGruff the crime dog and crash-test dummies "Vince" and "Larry."

Some residents chalked their driveways with crime prevention slogans and drawings.

In Ellicott City, residents got to meet part of the county's crime-fighting team.

Cliff, a county bomb-detection dog, showcased his talents for 50 residents gathered at First Evangelical Lutheran Church on Frederick Road in Ellicott City. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the county's police dog unit.

Cliff found gunpowder an officer had hidden in a church garden and "attacked" a county police officer portraying a criminal. The demonstration showed residents how Cliff finds and stops fleeing criminals.

Two blocks away, residents gathered at a community park in an apartment complex.

"I think it's [how] my staff can get to know our residents better," said Joan Humphreys, a property manager of the 160-unit Plumtree Apartments in the 3400 block of Plumtree Drive in Ellicott City.

For the first three months of this year, crime dropped in nearly every category but robbery in Howard County, according to police data. Robberies rose 86.5 percent countywide compared with the same period last year.

But residents said their neighborhoods are beset largely with what they consider minor crimes -- vandalism, reckless driving and thefts from garages.

"But there is no such thing as a small crime to the person involved," said William G. Volenick, a public safety officer for his Mount Hebron community in Ellicott City. "Fortunately, [it is] just vandalism. We're kind of the eye of the storm. There are things going on around us."

National Night Out gatherings in North Laurel and Columbia's Harper's Choice and Oakland Mills villages drew hundreds of residents. The three communities are vying to become the county's next "HotSpot," which would bring them a state-funded crime prevention program.

About 100 people gathered at several locations in North Laurel. As children munched on potato chips and gulped drinks, parents gathered in groups and talked about the progress they've made in deterring crime -- and the challenges that remain.

"We still have work to do," said Kim Miller, who has organized a neighborhood watch. "But the community is becoming organized."

For years, police have viewed sections of North Laurel as high-crime areas.

Residents say that while they have their share of drug dealing, burglaries and vandalism, the area is generally safe, and they want to keep it that way.

"Generally, this is a good neighborhood," said Cheryl Hernandez, who has lived in North Laurel for seven years. "Neighbors tend to look out for one another and call the police if we see something strange."

North Laurel is waiting to see if it wins Police Department designation as a "HotSpot."

Police Capt. Michael Kessler, commander of the Southern District, said that the police chief's decision could come in the next two weeks.

Harper's Choice has established successful crime prevention programs, but it still has among the highest number of police calls in Columbia, according to police statistics.

Oakland Mills residents say their problems are increasing, as criminals target their growing but aging population.

All the talk of crime did not keep youngsters from having a good time. They crowded around McGruff and played basketball in driveways.

"This is a good neighborhood get-together," said Michael Thewes, 11.

"Yeah, we get a chance to have some fun and learn some stuff, too," Omar Presbury, 10, chimed in. "I can't wait for this to happen next year."

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