Prince George's struggles with crime spike

Police redouble efforts as residents are stunned by brazen violence

July 31, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - In February, a Boys and Girls Club basketball coach is killed in front of his 12-year- old son by men who had just robbed two women in New Carrollton. In June, a beloved police officer is shot to death after a traffic stop in Laurel.

Two weeks ago, police said, four men went on a violent crime spree in and near Glenarden that left two men dead and two others robbed - all within two miles over a time span of 90 minutes.

Such brazen acts are part of a steep rise in every category of violent crime, including homicides and robberies, that has left suburban Prince George's County struggling with some of the same urban ills troubling its neighbor, Washington, and Baltimore.

"Nobody is happy with the way things are going," says Percel Alston, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police. "Crime has been escalating for a few years, but 2005 has really been an incredible spike."

On Friday, Prince George's County police Chief Melvin High promised to increase efforts to curtail crime and improve the productivity of officers found to be underperforming.

"We're going to lock up every thug we can find," the chief said at a news conference. "Nothing less will be tolerated."

Earlier, police acknowledged that crime is a continuing problem. "We're not where we want to be," said Lt. Col. Jeff Cox, deputy chief of the county police patrol services bureau.

Prince George's is a sprawling, diverse county. Parts of it are nearly indistinguishable from inner-city Washington, while the southern region stretches down through tobacco fields to rural Charles County.

Suburbs with new homes selling for a half-million dollars attract a "we've made it" crowd of federal employees and executives, and it's frequently spotlighted as the wealthiest majority-black area in the nation.

The county's steadily swelling population - 838,716, according to 2003 U.S. Census data - makes it the second-most-populous area of Maryland after Montgomery County, larger than either Baltimore City or Baltimore County.

Residents complain that the number of police officers has not kept up with growth.

Rising statistics

As of Friday, county police were investigating 97 homicides, compared with 80 at this time last year. It's a tally that rivals Washington's, though it's still far below Baltimore's body count of 163.

County police statistics show that robberies have more than doubled since this time last year, rape is up 20 percent and attempted rape is up 70 percent.

Carjackings have increased from about 215 in the first six months of last year to more than 300 so far this year.

And Prince George's County leads the state - and is among the highest in the nation - in vehicle theft.

"Prince George's County - we have money. We're highly educated. We're not losing population. These are not problems that we should be having," says Rushern L. Baker III, a former delegate who says he'll challenge County Executive Jack B. Johnson in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Most residents consider there to be two distinct regions of the county: inside and outside the Capital Beltway - Interstate 95/495 that separates urban areas around the District from the suburbs and rural farmland.

Although those interior neighborhoods adjacent to the District account for most of the 911 calls, police say outlying towns have also seen an unexpected increase in some crimes in recent years.

Innocent victim

Robert Lee Gail and his 12- year-old son were driving in Riverdale to basketball practice at a Prince George's County middle school just inside the Beltway on Valentine's Day when they had a fender-bender with two men in a stolen Chevrolet Blazer.

The drivers got out, and the man in the Blazer had a gun. He fatally shot Gail, a 41-year-old family man who had tucked teddy bears under the pillows of his wife and teenage daughter that morning and had coached basketball at the New Carrollton Boys and Girls Club for 14 years.

The man charged with Gail's killing, Lawrence Irving Green, according to court documents, had been speeding away from a nearby home where he had bound two young women with tape, fired shots to scare them and then took off in their Blazer.

Stacey Gail is raising their three children without her husband, her high school sweetheart, "the glue that held us all together." She's a lifelong resident who says her family never had any brushes with the law. She's so scared now that she won't send her boys to high school in the county.

"I just can't take the risk of losing them," she says.

Death in the suburbs

On a tree-lined street of longtime homeowners in a Hyattsville subdivision, Del. Rosetta C. Parker's son stepped outside one morning about three weeks ago to mow the lawn. A car parked across the street was running but wasn't moving.

When he looked inside, he saw the neighbor's son. He had been shot to death.

"I have never experienced anything even half like that before in my life," Rosetta Parker says. "It tore me apart."

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