Safety tops list in Whiskey Bottom

Residents hoping storefront police office will reduce crime

September 30, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

There are unpacked boxes, and the smell of just-laid carpet fills the room, but residents of the Whiskey Bottom neighborhood are hoping the new Howard County police office in North Laurel will provide a foundation for them to confront a vexing problem of community crime.

"We need this more than ever," said Cynthia Blade, a 26-year Whiskey Bottom resident and a teacher at Atholton High School. "It's just a dream come true."

Blade and other residents are counting on the police presence to reduce crime and bolster their sense of community. But with the paint barely dry and employees just establishing a routine, only time will tell whether the office will live up to residents' expectations.

"The office is a great step in the right direction, but it's not going to solve all of our problems," said Donna Thewes, a 14-year resident of North Laurel and the community liaison to the community policing program.

Bordered by the Patuxent River, Middle Patuxent River, U.S. 29 and U.S. 1, North Laurel contains about 9,000 households in the southeastern corner of Howard County. Some residents say its transient population and a continuing battle with drug-related crime have made it a tough place to live.

"North Laurel is broken up, not like Columbia," said Pfc. Susan Ensko, the Police Department's liaison to North Laurel. "There's no town center. People just don't have many gathering places here."

Some who live in North Laurel also believe that the community has suffered from years of neglect by Howard's leaders.

"This county has ignored this area for a long time," Blade said. "It's time there's some equity."

In recent years, some residents have spent their nights walking the streets of Whiskey Bottom as part of a neighborhood watch program. But since a fatal shooting in September 1999 at the Whiskey Bottom Shopping Center - where the police office is - most have become more vigilant about locking their doors and securing their property.

Days after the shooting, Capt. Michael Kessler, then the Southern District commander, said, "There has to be something done down there."

Weeks later, Whiskey Bottom submitted an application for a HotSpot police office to be placed in the community, in part to help fight drug problems. Shortly after that request was denied, the Horizon Foundation - a Howard County organization that focuses on community medical problems - provided $105,000 in start-up money for a community police office.

Called the North Laurel Initiative, the one-time grant for the office focuses on fighting drug addiction and promoting prevention, said Horizon President Richard M. Krieg.

"We thought this setup might be applicable in other places that lack the village infrastructure that Columbia has," he said. "I think we're going to learn a lot about how a community can work with an officer [in the absence] of that infrastructure."

Balloons, food and thanks

The doors to the Whiskey Bottom office officially opened during a county fair-like celebration Sept. 16. Against a backdrop of red, white and blue balloons and performances by a local band and a balloon-twisting magician, residents mingled with uniformed police officers and local politicians on the shopping center's parking lot.

Set between a dry cleaner and Pizza Milano on All Saints Road, the community police office will provide North Laurel with a more visible police presence and a central location from which information can flow to residents, Ensko said.

Police Chief Wayne Livesay, County Executive James N. Robey and others thanked those who helped establish the police office.

"This is your center here, not just ours, so come down and take advantage of it," Robey said. After his brief speech, he handed Livesay a Howard County flag to hang in the Whiskey Bottom office.

For Blade and other residents, the flag and Robey's presence are a symbol that North Laurel gradually is being accepted as part of Howard County. During the summer, new street lamps were installed in the area - something residents have requested for years.

"There is good police patrol here," said Joanna Carter, who lives on Homestead Court. "It's a nice little neighborhood, and having this station will make it even more safe and secure."

Ruth Amis, an employee at a convenience store in the shopping center, characterized Whiskey Bottom as a friendly place. She has lived near the store for 17 years, and said the shopping center acts as a hub for the area: "People come in here and talk to me all the time. And I know all of my neighbors."

County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who attended the opening, said active residents would give the police office a running start.

"This is a community that really wants this," he said. "Police have responded well, but this even more enhanced presence was needed."

`Already seen improvement'

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