College Park may add police force

Voters will be asked whether they support creation of city law enforcement


COLLEGE PARK -- It was Friday night and Alario's was packed. University of Maryland students and other patrons were eating pizzas, calzones and pasta - a typical "prime time" crowd, said owner Alan Wanuck.

So when men wearing masks walked into the restaurant in May and demanded money, Wanuck thought it was a prank. During the next 15 minutes, as they robbed everyone, he realized it was not. "It was like Old West cowboy times," Wanuck said.

College Park, along with Bowie, is one of two cities in Prince George's County asking voters today whether they would support the creation of their own local police force.

Officials in both cities say they don't get enough attention from the county force and are adversely affected by its staffing shortages and response times.

In College Park, a city of 24,700, officials estimate that the creation of a 30-officer force would cost taxpayers $4 million annually, or as much as $480 per household.

"Compared to surrounding areas, College Park, both on- and off-campus, is a safe place," said Mayor Stephen A. Brayman. "But it's not up to the safety standard that ... most parents statewide want and expect their children to go to school in."

While the University of Maryland campus has its own force, the city is patrolled by county police and the UM police. The university force expanded its jurisdiction into the city's downtown area - where many students live - after the stabbing death of a student at an off-campus party in 2002.

About that time, the city agreed to spend $200,000 to hire county officers to patrol for 100 hours a week. But the understaffed county can't always spare them. Today's referendum is designed to give city officials a sense of whether voters want more police protection and is not binding.

The number of crimes reported in College Park increased from 928 in 2002 to 1,052 in 2003, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Some officials argue that the state ought to help pay for increased local protection.

"There are students from all across the state who do not pay taxes here. Some residents have said this is not our whole burden to bear," said City Councilman Eric C. Olson, who is likely to run for a County Council seat next year.

The idea of a city police force has been floated since College Park was incorporated in 1945, said public services director Bob Ryan. In 1995, a referendum that would have doubled taxes to help pay for a force was defeated.

But an increase in robberies both on and off campus and the shooting of a student in August contributed to a renewed sense that a city force might be necessary.

Wanuck, Alario's owner and a former city councilman, isn't so sure. Despite the robbery at his business in May, he said he wants to see more proof that a city police force would make a difference.

"I'm on the fence till I find out more of the facts," he said.

In Bowie, the idea seems to have more support. The referendum there, which also is nonbinding, asks voters whether they would support the formation of a $7 million, 57-officer department.

Some community leaders in College Park have said they would like to see the university and county take a more active role before creating a new force. A city force would not have jurisdiction on the state-owned campus, but some fear an additional police agency could muddle communication and responsibility among the existing patrols.

University officials acknowledge a responsibility beyond the campus borders - to a point. In addition to patrolling in parts of College Park where many students live, the campus has more than 300 security cameras, late-night escorts and has hired additional officers.

"We will never be and should not be the primary law enforcement in the city of College Park," said John Porcari, vice president of administrative affairs.

"If [the safety of students] requires some off-campus responsibility that's well defined, we will do that and have been doing that," he said. "But there are real limits on what we can do off campus."

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