Activism, policing decrease crime rate

Oakland Mills changing unfavorable reputation

`New feeling about the village'

Columbia

February 15, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Strenuous efforts by residents and Howard County police have apparently paid off in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, as new statistics show a significant reduction in crime over the past two years.

"It's not accidental. It's something we worked very hard toward," said Barbara Russell, the village's representative on the Columbia Council. "There's just a whole new feeling now about the village."

In October 2003, Howard County police assigned an officer full time to the village center and surrounding area. In August last year, police opened a satellite office there, a furnished gray trailer that serves as a base for local officers.

The village has seen double-digit percentage declines from 2002 to 2004 in the number of reported motor-vehicle thefts and loitering and disorderly conduct incidents. The number of burglaries did not change much, but the number of homicides was zero in 2004, compared with two in 2003 and two in 2002.

The effect, residents say, has been noticeable.

When Bill Woodcock was looking for houses in the area almost five years ago, he recalled real estate agents warning him against Oakland Mills because it was "scummy."

"This place had a reputation that was partly because of crime and partly just reputation," said Woodcock, chairman of the village board. "Now we're changing both."

The turning point, many residents believe, came in the summer of 2003, when the village mobilized an effort to prevent a drug and alcohol treatment center from moving into the neighborhood.

"At the time, Oakland Mills had an image of itself that it was the dumping ground of Columbia," Woodcock said. "But with the methadone clinic, the village drew a line in the sand and said, `No more.' "

The clinic never opened, and that, Woodcock believes, began a string of victories for Oakland Mills.

Soon after came the police substation at the village center. Three months ago, a Food Lion supermarket opened at the village center, taking over a long-vacant space. The village center is still looking to fill the vacancy left when the Last Chance Saloon closed in January 2004, but having a major supermarket has given the center a new vibrancy.

"Before, it looked like the village center was dying; now it looks like it's alive," said Susan Cope, assistant manager of the skating rink adjacent to Food Lion.

Police say the change in Oakland Mills is due in part to the efforts of Officer Michael Johnson, who was permanently assigned to the village center in 2003. He does not get dispatched on calls to other villages and works, most days, out of the substation.

Since Johnson began his assignment at the village center, the number of warrants served has risen from nine in 2002 to 30 in 2004.

"Officer Johnson knows the repeat criminals by face," said Officer Jennifer Reidy, a county police spokeswoman. "He knows where they live, knows where to check for them. Picking them up on open warrants means less criminals in the area."

Victor Warch, who cuts hair at the village center barber shop, has a simpler explanation.

"It's a no-brainer," he said. "Put in a police station, and crime goes down."

Residents are mobilizing to bring more improvements to the village as part of a revitalization effort funded by United Way, the Columbia Foundation, Horizon Foundation and Enterprise Foundation.

"We want to bring more lighting here, so people feel safe to walk around," said Sandy Cedarbaum, the village manager. The village is also onsidering a marketing campaign with glossy fliers and videotape.

"We're on a roll," Russell said. "But we're also just at the beginning. There's still a lot more work to be done."

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