Aberdeen sees fallen buildings as symbolic step toward rebirth

Burning, razing of houses part of an anti-crime campaign

February 26, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

As he raised the claw of a backhoe over the tiny downtown Aberdeen home, Mayor S. Fred Simmons was reminded of the suspected drug dealers who once drifted through its doors and the angry pit bulls chained to trees in the front yard.

With one violent jerk downward, Simmons sunk the claw into a front corner of the Washington Street home and tore it off, to the cheers of pastors and a gospel choir.

Along with the controlled burns of two other houses, city leaders called yesterday's events a symbolic step forward in the effort to revitalize Aberdeen, a growing military outpost. After rubble from the destroyed houses is cleared, Habitat for Humanity will build new homes for three local families.

"We're striving for a better Aberdeen," said Bishop Clarence Barnes, a pastor at Highway Holiness Church. "Folks deserve a comfortable home. We're tearing down the old and bringing in the new."

Since Simmons took office less than two years ago, Aberdeen, a city of about 14,000 people, has adopted a more aggressive approach toward policing. There has been one homicide in the past four years - a February 2006 killing for which police have made no arrests - but officials and residents say drugs continue to afflict the community.

"Disinvested military towns usually have a reputation for crime," said Simmons, who accompanies police on drug raids. "Believe me, it won't be there anymore."

Yesterday, members of the city's new Rapid Response Team, outfitted in green fatigues with black utility belts, stood cross-armed in front of a Chevrolet Suburban. The back window read, "This vehicle belonged to a drug dealer and was seized by your Aberdeen Police rapid response team."

The owner was 26-year-old Diedrik Edward Saddler, who lived in the house that was torn down yesterday. Though court records show that Saddler has apparently never been convicted of drug possession or distribution, he sits in the Harford County Detention Center awaiting four drug-related trials.

Within three months, Simmons said, the city will have about 100 surveillance cameras - some installed by the city, others already set up in private businesses and schools - wired into a watch room in City Hall, where police will observe high-crime areas or go to review tape after a crime occurs.

Tactics questioned

Some residents said the city's officers have been too aggressive in their push to crack down on crime. Melvin E. Williams, 26, said he is often harassed by police and stopped without reason. He claims that an officer once pointed a gun at him to intimidate him.

"I'm tired of being targeted," said Williams, who was watching the demolition.

Saddler's attorney, David P. Henninger, said Aberdeen police have developed a reputation for using questionable tactics.

"They will stop people routinely - typically young black men - and take their money. They'll tell them, `You're a drug dealer, you shouldn't have this money, and if you want it back, go find a lawyer,'" Henninger said yesterday. "They're trying to send the word that if you have questionable dealings, you need to stay clear of Aberdeen, under threat of your house being burnt down and your property seized, whether you are guilty or not."

Police Chief Randy M. Rudy said officers have been taking telephone calls from emboldened residents.

"It's our job to make sure what we do is done constitutionally," Rudy said. He added that his department's goal is to "affect the quality of life" in Aberdeen and ensure "that public safety is held to the highest standard."

The increased patrols are working, said Brenda Urban, a mother of three who moved into a Habitat for Humanity home on Washington Street in 2001. She said she was frightened to come home late at night, and has seen shootings and stabbings.

`Less activity now'

"There's a lot less [criminal] activity now," she said. "I'm glad they do what they do."

Families that will move into two of the new homes were on hand for yesterday's ceremony. Jeanine Nkurunziza, a nurse's assistant who emigrated from the small Central African country of Burundi, jumped up and down after posing for a picture in front of one of the soon-to-be burned structures. Her new home will be built on the site.

"I've been waiting and waiting," said Nkurunziza, who has a 2-year-old son. "This is my dream come true."

The event, dubbed "The Big Burn," included two homes being torched as part of a training exercise for local fire companies. Though the homes were only a few hundred square feet in size, holes were punched in the ceilings for ventilation and the firefighters conducted walk-throughs to identify exits.

A Baltimore Fire Department recruit was killed Feb. 9 during a live-burn exercise that was later found to have been fraught with violations of national regulations. The head of the fire academy was fired last week after scrutiny of the incident.

"Even with a small house, there are still unknowns that you don't plan for," said Aberdeen Fire Chief Steve Hinch.

Simmons said he hopes yesterday's event serves as notice to drug dealers, prostitutes and other criminals in Aberdeen. There's one house in particular at the end of Washington Street that Simmons said police will watch closely once the citywide surveillance system is online.

"With these cameras, we'll be able to see the time on his watch," he said.


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