Getting a jump on crime

Unit: Created in November, a three-officer squad is keeping an eye on Howard's hot spots.

February 28, 2000|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

In a room that smells of ink and sweat, Moose carefully tallies the night's take: 15 tiny red, yellow, blue and green plastic bags, each containing a rock of crack cocaine; 22 pink capsules filled with white, powdery heroin; and still more heroin rolled inside a dollar bill.

It's been a good night for Moose and his colleagues on the Howard County Police Department's special assignment team, a three-member squad created in November to supplement the work of detectives and patrol officers.

They do not answer calls, but parachute into neighborhoods where prostitutes, drugs or crimes have been persistent.

The team takes its orders from Capt. Howard Ferguson, commander of the Southern District. Ferguson decides where to send the undercover officers after looking at crime trends and listening to neighborhood complaints.

Although Howard does not have the volume of crime found in neighboring jurisdictions, trouble spots persist. The team spends most of its time in crime hot spots such as the U.S. 1 corridor and the Oakland Mills, Harper's Choice or Long Reach village centers. "We can put the team in certain areas to deal with drugs, prostitution, robberies, vandalism, alcohol violations or any other aspect of police work," Ferguson says.

Since November, the squad has made more than 90 arrests and confiscated thousands of dollars and several cars. It has gathered information for detectives working homicide and robbery cases.

During four 10-hour shifts each week, squad members cruise through targeted areas, stopping suspicious-looking cars or pedestrians. A broken taillight, weaving, aimless turns or stops are reasons to follow a car for a few minutes to see where the driver goes.

The idea is to watch and wait, always looking to spot a crime happening or about to happen, says Sgt. John Mynaugh, who supervises two officers. They are Doug Catherman, a 29-year-old former college linebacker who, because of his size, has been given the nickname "Moose," and Steve Stanton, 34, whose short, wiry frame has earned him the nickname "Stubby."

To blend with their surroundings, the officers trade their crisp patrol uniforms for worn jeans, faded sweat shirts and jackets. And no big white cars that scream "police." Instead, they cruise in the same types of vehicles that can be found in suburban driveways and parking lots.

They have to blend in with anyone who is, say, trafficking drugs out of a Columbia apartment. The presence of uniformed officers would chase the dealers away. Working undercover helps them catch criminals in the act, arrest them and get them off the street.

Mynaugh hand-picked Moose, who is also a sniper on the department's Tactical Team, Howard's version of SWAT. "I couldn't stand sitting behind a desk every day," says Moose, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1993 with a degree in criminology and a minor in psychology. "Every day is different."

Stubby and Mynaugh grew up in Howard and have been friends since sixth grade. Stubby's brother started his police career on the Howard department and is an officer in Gaithersburg.

`Best kind'

"This is really the best kind of police work," Stubby says. "It's proactive, and we are very good at initiating stuff."

Which is how, on a mild Wednesday night, they find themselves cruising down Rappahannock Avenue in Jessup where truckers park their rigs overnight and prostitutes are often found scurrying between them.

Mynaugh watches a Jeep Cherokee stop and a man climb out the passenger side. The man starts walking up the street.

"Moose, watch that guy," Mynaugh says over the radio as he gets out of his car.

"Hey, where are you going, man?" Mynaugh yells as he follows the man.

The man, hands shoved into his pockets, turns and starts walking toward Mynaugh and Moose.

"I'm going to kill my girlfriend," he replies nonchalantly. "She's trickin' up here somewhere. Just lock me up now."

Mynaugh grants the man -- later identified as Tony Eugene Harris, 32, of Annapolis -- his wish. Moose pats him down and fishes out of his pockets several tiny red, blue, green and yellow plastic bags of crack cocaine; pink plastic capsules filled with heroin; and cash. In Harris' coat pocket, they find a silver starter's pistol.

Quickly, Moose and Stubby rush the Jeep Cherokee and order a man and a woman out at gunpoint. Both leave the vehicle. Later, at Southern District, the three are charged with drug violations and felony theft; the Jeep was reported stolen in Baltimore County.

As Moose and Stubby begin the tedious process of testing the drugs and filling out charging documents, they find that the black knit cap worn by Harris has two eyeholes cut out, which would make it a handy mask during a robbery.

Stubby suggests calling robbery detectives to talk to Harris.

Surveillance work

But surveillance is not always this rewarding. Some officers -- who thrive on the instant gratification of going from call to call -- loathe this sort of police work.

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