Funds to aid crime fighting

City intends to supply money for neighborhood organizations

May 11, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Residents of Northeast Baltimore have long used donated police radios to communicate when they go out on citizen patrols each week, but lately the equipment - which is more than 15 years old - has been acting up.

When community leaders looked into how much it would cost to replace the hand-held devices, the quote came back at $4,000 - far more than the nonprofit community group that organizes the patrols could afford.

"We don't have a lot of money. We basically operate on a year-to-year basis," said Mike Hilliard, community relations director for the HARBEL Community Organization, an umbrella neighborhood group. "It's really not feasible for us to lay down $4,000."

To encourage small, neighborhood-based efforts to reduce crime, city officials are pushing forward on a pair of programs - one initiated by Mayor Sheila Dixon and the other pending in the City Council - to direct thousands of dollars in grants to neighborhood crime-fighting programs.

Though the overall amount of money that city leaders are trying to make available is small - about $250,000 - supporters said there are many programs like Hilliard's that need only a few thousand dollars to make a difference.

"I'd like to let the neighborhoods be creative in coming up with whatever they come up with," said City Councilman Bill Henry, who has introduced a proposal to create the neighborhood grant program. "I wanted to make it broad, and I wanted to give the neighborhoods a lot of leeway."

Henry's bill would direct the roughly $200,000 that Baltimore receives directly from assets seized by police every year to neighborhoods. Community leaders would apply for funding through police community relations councils, and the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice would make a final determination on whether to award a grant.

Each year, the funding would be allocated among police districts based on the percentage of all money confiscated from those districts.

Dixon, who said she supports the concept of the legislation, plans to earmark $50,000 toward a similar program that would also be directed by her criminal justice office, city officials said.

Sheryl Goldstein, director of that office, said community groups' needs are often small - flashlights, T-shirts and signs for community patrols, for instance - but that the money can also be used for neighborhood-based prevention efforts, such as programs for youths or to help felons reintegrate after they are released from prison.

"It's a good idea to get some resources back into the community that are facing some problems with crime," she said.

Henry's bill, which is co-sponsored by a majority of the City Council, would use only a portion of assets seized in Baltimore, those worth less than $2,000. The city elects to have the U.S. Department of Justice manage the seizure of assets over $2,000 - a legal process that can take years to complete.

For its effort, the federal government typically receives about 20 percent of those assets and Baltimore takes the remaining 80 percent, city officials said.

The legislation has been assigned to the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee and is expected to receive a hearing later this year.

Henry acknowledges that he got the idea of creating the fund from a political opponent, Bill Goodin, a neighborhood activist who ran against Henry in Baltimore's Democratic primary last year and in 2004. Goodin said in an interview last week that the bill is a step in the right direction.

"Why not take that money that's been confiscated from the community and earmark it to put it directly where drugs are destroying the community?" Goodin said. "That's money that can be used."

Hilliard, the HARBEL official, said small investments in his neighborhood have made a real difference. He said violent crime has gone down roughly 24 percent and property crime has decreased 20 percent since the group started the patrols, which are done by car because of the large distances that have to be covered.

"If more money comes into the hopper, then they will have the ability of financing this type of stuff and have a greater impact," Hilliard said.

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