Panel launches crime offensive

Advisory group suggests block watch, team effort in Pennsylvania Ave. plan


July 12, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

An advisory committee formed to revitalize a troubled Westminster neighborhood wants police to closely track crime in the Pennsylvania Avenue area of the city.

The proposal to create a database of arrests and suspects was among recommendations made by the Lower Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative. The committee also is calling for a neighborhood block watch program and for police to coordinate efforts with city code inspectors, parole and probation officers and juvenile justice officials.

The recommendations were discussed Wednesday night at the third meeting of the committee, a 40-member panel of government officials and residents formed to find ways to fight drug-related crime, prostitution and vandalism in the neighborhood encompassing Pennsylvania Avenue and West Main Street. The proposals could form the basis for legislation before the Westminster Common Council by September.

At the meeting, the committee received a crash course in fighting stubborn crime from the head of the state's HotSpots program.

"These are short-range and long-range strategies, but at least you can start by sticking your fingers in the ground and planting seeds, then letting it grow," said John F. Tewey, coordinator for the Maryland HotSpots Communities Initiative. He said groups such as the Pennsylvania Avenue committee, by providing a forum to exchange ideas, often develop creative solutions.

A former Baltimore police officer who retired in 1999 as commander of the Violent Crimes Task Force, Tewey gave the group strategies that have worked across the state. In his post at the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, he said, he has found teamwork effective.

He said the effort should start with thorough information gathering.

"You create a database that tracks the type of person who commits a certain type of crime," he said. "It helps the police department focus in on the real problems. You deal differently with kids who are smoking marijuana than with hard-core heroin addicts."

Because communities are an integral part of the reclamation of the streets, Tewey said, citizen block watch programs are vital. Police, he said, can't be everywhere at once.

"When citizens become involved and become eyes and ears for the police, we have thousands of eyes and ears to help," he said.

Tewey spent the bulk of his presentation on "safety teams." The concept stems from his work on the HotSpots Initiative, launched by the state in 1997 to systematically help neighborhoods take back crime-ridden streets. Each of the 62 designated HotSpots in Maryland is assigned a team of two officers - parole and police - and one juvenile justice counselor who keep track of their charges and regularly exchange information. They are able to find the connections between their cases and streamline their responses.

A second, larger team made up of decision-makers such as prosecutors, police officials, social service agency representatives and business interests supports that collaboration, he said. For instance, mental health agencies can help individuals with a history of mental illness, while businesses can provide parolees with employment.

"The challenge is to get people to buy in," he said. "It's not a process where you turn on the light switch and it's fixed. It's ongoing."

Tewey said the program has been successful in Hagerstown, Brooklyn Heights and several Eastern Shore communities.

While no proposal has been made for Westminster to be designated a state HotSpot, committee members said they hope to borrow program ideas.

In Westminster, several crime prevention programs are in place, said Chief Roger G. Joneckis. Through a combination of more police officers, neighborhood crime watches and educational programs, he said, Westminster has cut its arrests from 1,200 in 1998 to an estimated 820 so far this year. Though willing to do her part, former Westminster councilwoman Rebecca Orenstein, a Pennsylvania Avenue resident, expressed concern. "We really need increased vigilance by the police," she said. "We are dealing with hardened criminals. We need police protection."

Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said the courts could play a key role in cleaning up the community.

"The solution for repeat drug dealers is to remove them from society" through long sentences without parole, when possible, Barnes said. "Hopefully, we'll make Westminster an unattractive place for drug dealers and users."

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