Video patrol deters criminals Patrol helps deter crime

Volunteers: Residents help make Annapolis safer without even getting out of their cars.

March 23, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Dennis Conti stopped at the corner of Clay and Glenwood streets on a recent night, and a group of men gave him long, hard stares. Conti put his car into park and stared back for a few tense moments. Finally, the group dispersed, most of the men walking off into the darkness.

Conti allowed himself a small grin as he put the car back into drive. "They don't like us," said Conti, head of the local crime patrol. "Well, it's mutual."

City leaders are hoping that scene replays itself more in the coming months. Conti and four other volunteers patrol the area around Clay Street, one of Annapolis' most troubled neighborhoods, armed only with cell phones and video cameras.

The group has no power to arrest drug dealers or other suspected criminals - "we don't even get out of the car," Conti said. But by videotaping suspicious activity and writing down the license plate numbers of suspicious cars, the group has changed the area, city leaders and police say.

Located just off Rowe Boulevard, less than half a mile from three-star hotels and a short walk from the State House, Clay Street was among the city's most notorious drug-dealing areas.

In 2000, 86 serious crimes - including rape, murder and assaults - were reported in the four-block radius around Clay Street, according to city police. But since volunteers began patrolling in 2001, crime has dropped - 61 serious crimes from October 2002 to September of last year, the most recent statistics available.

"The turnaround has been remarkable," said Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson.

Annapolis leaders are holding community meetings in some of the city's more troubled areas and hope that more volunteers will step forward to organize similar patrols and take back their neighborhoods.

"People that live [in the Clay Street area] have become energized and engaged. They've said: `We're no longer willing to be pushed around,'" said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

Clay Street once was a peaceful, largely residential neighborhood. But residents say by the mid-1990s, drug dealers were hanging out on corners, and prostitutes had sex with clients in parked cars.

In a strange incident last year, four Arnold teen-agers claimed they took a wrong turn onto Clay Street and were robbed by men armed with handguns and stun guns. The victims said they were forced to disrobe after the robbery and later were found wandering on Main Street, the city's main tourist drag.

Clay Street's proximity to major roads and tourist attractions makes it that much more appealing to drug dealers and buyers. Visitors "can buy drugs then get right back to a well-lit street," Conti said.

Residents say the area was even worse than statistics indicate.

When James Veals moved into Timothy House in the first block of W. Washington St., he expected to find a quiet senior housing complex. But instead of retirees playing bingo or card games, Veals said, he found drug dealers camped out in the lobby and in the halls.

Veals said he didn't hear of many seniors using drugs, but he said that dealers would store narcotics in apartments.

"Seniors were afraid to come out of their homes," Veals said.

And area residents were afraid to report crimes to authorities. "The community just wasn't involved," said Johnson.

About a year and a half ago, Conti and four other volunteers decided to start their patrols. The group used $22,000 from a state grant and police funds to begin installing lights and fences around troubled areas.

But perhaps the most important purchase was a small video camera and 7-inch television that can be mounted in a car. Volunteers record suspicious activity, which they use to help strengthen community patrols. So far, the program has drawn no complaints from civil liberty groups. "We're not here to invade anyone's privacy," Conti said.

Conti and the other volunteers come out at least once a week and load the device into a rented car. The team doesn't have enough money to buy a car, so members rent a vehicle and slap Clay Street Public Safety Team magnets onto the doors.

"We want people to know who we are," Conti said.

On a recent night, it was apparent that residents are familiar with the public safety team. Many waved at the car as Conti edged it up the narrow streets.

It was a quiet night, and Conti and the other volunteers didn't have to turn on the video camera or take down a license plate for several hours. Conti called Officer Joe Ridley about every half-hour, exchanging news about suspicious vehicles and pedestrians.

"If you see something around, give me a holler," Ridley said.

While most seemed happy to see Conti, a few residents resented the extra surveillance. One man wobbled away from a group of men loitering in the College Creek Terrace public housing area, a pungent smell trailing him. "He's been smoking crack," Veals said wearily.

Another volunteer turned on the video camera and trained it at a circle of men. The group stared back, then, perhaps intimidated by the camera, melted into the darkness.

"Amazing what light can do," Conti said, putting the car back into gear.

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