Facing crime head on

Edgewood residents, officials seek to change publicized problem


On a recent weeknight in Edgewood, a small group of parishioners gathered in a strip mall sanctuary as the Rev. Tony McDonald talked about a crisis facing the community. Standing on a carpeted podium, surrounded by temporary walls in a converted retail store, McDonald said recent crime was a call to arms to spread the word of God.

"We need renewal - we need a fresh start," he said, as parishioners shouted in support. "Edgewood must be known for its relationship with God. We've got to get God back in our community."

Moments later, the group traveled across Pulaski Highway for a candlelight vigil with family and friends of a 20-year-old who was gunned down in front of an Edgewood townhouse two weeks ago.

There, more than 100 congregated on a narrow sidewalk, sobbing and sweating through emotionally charged exhortations on the need for change. Nearby, children frolicked in a backyard swimming pool and young men in long white T-shirts stared blankly from across the street. Michelle Guess, whose husband's death shocked this community a year-and-a-half ago, emerged at one point to address the mourners, her voice steadily rising from behind tears to a forceful monologue.

"We have to change the lives of the little ones," she said, tears streaming down her face. "You can't make a difference with a gun in your hand."

It has been a vexing two weeks for residents of Edgewood, an area of 23,000 residents that has become synonymous with Harford's crime problems. Many are openly questioning whether the Harford County Sheriff's Office has enough deputies patrolling the county's southwestern sectors, and community leaders and officials have been meeting frequently to find solutions.

What that solution should be has many divided, however. Some residents and political leaders want an increased police presence, while others said they believe the types of crimes that are occurring can't be solved by more deputies. Religious leaders, such as McDonald, point to ministry and outreach. Others just want a seat at the table.

"What has happened so often is that the community feels we've been dictated to and not been a partner," said Jansen Robinson, a former school police chief in Baltimore and Washington who is president of the Edgewood Community Association. "What we look for are silver bullets - the one thing that will do it. They need to talk with the community to find out what the problems are."

State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly told The Sun last week that the county will begin aggressively enforcing a state law that uses civil lawsuits to evict rental-home tenants who engage in drug activity - a major part of Edgewood's criminal element. He also wants to broaden the scope of the law, which has been rarely enforced here, to allow greater eviction powers, similar to those used by Baltimore City and Prince George's County, he said.

Officials also are looking into establishing a juvenile curfew, a rule in place in some Maryland jurisdictions but that has been struck down by courts in others.

"When you analyze it, it's a mischaracterization to say things are terrible [in Edgewood]," Cassilly said. "We're talking about a square mile with lots of little side streets and courts that don't lend themselves to being able to easily patrol. We need to target the people in that area that are causing this problem."

A year ago, a similar push to crack down on gangs was initiated in response to the shooting of 37-year-old Derald Howard Guess by two members of a local gang in 2004. The sheriff's office held public seminars on how to spot and report gang activity, and appealed to federal and state agencies for grants available to local police. State Sen. Nancy Jacobs proposed a successful state bill making it illegal to recruit into gangs.

Nuisance ordinances and a daytime curfew were discussed then but not implemented, officials said.

Efforts to create a curfew likely would face opposition from civil rights groups, which argue that it is often selectively enforced and is prejudiced.

"Most places, even if they do enact these curfews, don't enforce them," said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "They're just untenable. You're spending your police officers' time sweeping kids off the street for a negligible law enforcement outcome."

Police, meanwhile, maintain that the area's crimes have been overstated, and an analysis of countywide crime data shows that Harford is on pace for some of its lowest crime totals in years. At the current pace, rapes, robberies, assaults and thefts handled by the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Aberdeen Police Department and Bel Air Police Department would approach or set eight-year lows (data from the Havre de Grace Police Department were not available).

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