Violence cuts deep in Robinwood

Calm enough during daylight, public housing community is transformed at night

`The shooting is getting out of control'

August 21, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

If you walk around Annapolis' Robinwood public housing community in the day, you won't see much out of the ordinary. Some teens play basketball near a dilapidated playground, a mother hurries her toddlers into a car, three girls sit in front of their home, braiding each other's hair.

Come back at night and it's a different picture. Cars - some with out-of-state plates and heavily tinted windows - cruise the street. Loud music blares. Teenage boys stand in clusters on street corners.

When the sun goes down, residents say, the neighborhood gets "hot." And this summer has been a scorcher for Robinwood.

In six weeks, a teenage boy was stabbed; a 20-year-old man was fatally shot, allegedly by a 15-year-old boy who had accompanied him to the neighborhood; a girl was shot in the shoulder; and a Baltimore man staying in the complex woke up with three men standing over him and a gun in his face.

Residents say that's a lot of violence for their 150-home community.

Tynneishia Camoron, 20, a Robinwood resident, says she's scared to go down the street. "You never know when someone is going to come out and shoot," she says.

Her friend, Keonna Baker, 18, agrees: "The shooting is getting out of control. ... I don't know what's going on. It's like the Wild West."

Since Robinwood was constructed along Tyler Avenue off of Forest Road in 1970, the community's reputation has gone up and down. Residents and police say that it used to be a more desirable neighborhood - with cookouts, kiddie pools and even Sunday church services out on the basketball court.

But statistics from the Annapolis police reveal that crime in the neighborhood has increased in recent years. For example, the number of aggravated assaults rose from 14 in 2001 to 20 in 2004. (Police say that higher numbers can also reflect better reporting by the community, something police want to encourage.)

The neighborhood also drew attention when two young Robinwood residents, Terrence Tolbert and Leeander Blake, were charged with the highly publicized carjacking and killing of a businessman in Annapolis' historic district in 2002.

Tolbert was convicted last year, but Blake was freed after prosecutors lost a pretrial appeal. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Annapolis police Chief Joseph S. Johnson, who has watched the neighborhood over his 14-year tenure at the department, says crime there is cyclical.

For a few years, "the bad elements went to other parts of the city, Johnson said. "This is a wakeup call for [residents]: Get engaged again."

Johnson noted that there's been a decline in participation in the neighborhood watch program. He said the department has stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, but he says police need help from the community.

"We have a lot more resources now," Johnson said, noting that residents who fear retribution for reporting crimes to police can go to the site manager or to private security officers hired to patrol on foot.

The city and the housing authority also pay off-duty police officers to patrol the neighborhoods.

"That takes the fear out of reporting suspicious activity. Now you can channel it though other people. It has worked before."

Police and Robinwood residents attribute the violence to a feud between rival neighborhood groups. But Camoron and her friends said people are afraid to identify those responsible.

Even talking to a journalist can apparently invite retribution. One longtime resident declined to be interviewed for this article, saying her window was pierced by a gunshot after she was quoted in another newspaper.

If the neighborhood has become like the Wild West, then Dennis Conti, the new acting director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, appears to be the community's unlikely cowboy.

A retired telecommunications executive, Conti approaches the crime problem like an MBA. He uses words like "change agent" and uses PowerPoint presentations at resident meetings.

The goal for any housing project is straightforward, he says: "It is to provide safe, decent and affordable housing."

For some of the nearly 500 residents in Robinwood, which is managed by the city's federally funded housing authority, rent is free. But it can cost up to $500 a month to live there. On average, residents of the city's public housing pay $200 a month, Conti said.

The amount of rent varies depending on the resident's income and number of dependents.

To qualify for public housing, prospective candidates need to apply to the housing authority. And, despite the spike in violence, more than 1,000 people are on a waiting list, Conti said.

When a unit opens up, a criminal record check is done on the applicant. "Drug activity, any kind of violent activity, would make someone ineligible," Conti said. "Sex offenders are not permitted to be residents."

His plan for Robinwood - and all 10 of the communities he's in charge of - is simple and it rhymes. Weed and seed. Right now, at least in Robinwood, the focus is on weeding.

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