Police, housing agency at odds

Federal authority has cut number of officers on staff

Not `the city's burden alone'

Parties agree on increase but not on who will pay

Annapolis

November 10, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Though crime levels are at a 10-year low in his city, Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson has one very large concern: Only five part-time officers patrol the city's 1,100 public housing units, where officials and residents agree that crime is rising.

"Things could get out of hand in public housing," Johnson said.

Because of federal budget cuts, the Housing Authority of Annapolis, which oversees the city's public housing, has cut back on the number of officers who patrol its property, supplementing regular police services. Although police and housing authority officials agree that public housing requires more officers to combat crime, they are arguing about who will pick up the tab.

Housing authority officials have declined to take $150,000 out of their budget to pay for more security and have questioned why the authority should spend money on that when it has to fund other programs.

"The housing authority shouldn't have to take money out of children's mouths," said board member Howard Pinskey.

Police and housing authority officials plan to meet this month to try and come to an agreement. "Each of us acknowledge the added cost. It's a matter of who's going to pay it," said Johnson, who said he believes that the groups will split the bill.

Police do not keep track of how many crimes occur on housing authority property, but three of the city's five homicides this year occurred in public housing. The latest victim, Zewan Montez Henriques, was found fatally shot in front of the Eastport Terrace/Harbour House recreation center Halloween night.

Annapolis' problem is common throughout the country as housing authorities struggle to pay for protective services after the federal Public Housing Drug Elimination Program was scrapped two years ago. The program provided nearly $300 million a year to housing authorities throughout the country to fight crime and add police officers.

Annapolis received about $250,000 a year from the program.

"I've had housing programs from across the country tell me they've had to cut programs to keep their security measures in place," said Timothy Kaiser, executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association in Washington.

The Oklahoma City Housing Authority has lost about 17 security guards in the past year because of budget concerns. Although that agency has no crime statistics, "we're not able to respond as quickly, and that's really allowing the criminal activity to increase," said Mark Gillett, assistant executive director of planning and development for the authority.

Gillett said Oklahoma City Housing Authority officials tried to come to an agreement with local police but that "they have their own budget issues" and the authority had no choice but to cut back on security. The authority has 36 security guards to keep track of its almost 15,000 residents.

"It was a tough decision," Gillett said.

The Annapolis housing authority, a federal entity not run by the city, owns about 1,100 units, which house almost 3,000 people, roughly 8 percent of the city's population. City police are responsible for enforcing laws on the housing authority's property, but the authority hires off-duty police officers for supplemental protection.

With its share of the federal anti-drug funding, the authority employed nearly 15 officers to patrol its property. Although the officers were off duty, they were allowed to use their equipment, including cars and guns, and could make arrests.

But that number has dwindled to five officers. Residents and community leaders say it's not enough.

"I hear shots every night," said Ward 4 Alderman George O. Kelley Sr. At a housing authority meeting, Kelley, a Democrat, said he recently took a sawed-off shotgun from someone while driving around the housing complexes.

Alderman Josh Cohen -- who represents Eastport, which borders some housing authority communities -- recently wrote a letter to the housing authority calling for the hiring of more community-based police.

"The drug market along President and Madison Streets is out of hand. Buyers and sellers are more blatant than ever and the activity is spreading outward to other parts of Eastport. This issue is the number one concern to most of my constituents," he wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 25.

Cohen, a Ward 8 Democrat, said that dozens of residents have complained to him about problems and that "the homicides are just the tip of the iceberg."

But the city police chief said that he is not inclined to hire more officers and that the authority must spend money to add officers; he is willing to match the funds, though. "Public housing requires additional resources," Johnson said. "It shouldn't be the city's burden alone."

Annapolis elected officials say they are aware of other authorities and want to avoid their example.

"To be frank, my constituents don't care who pays" for added police, Cohen said. While Cohen specifically asked the housing authority to hire more police officers, he said he wouldn't be surprised if the city is asked to foot part of the bill.

"It's a problem that needs to be addressed," he said.

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