Police plan greater presence at public housing areas

'Safe Zone' meant to control crime, disrupt drug trade

April 04, 2010|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Annapolis police plan to step up their presence this month at two of the city's public housing communities, an effort that police say has helped decrease crime in the past.

The program, called Safe Zone, assigns more officers and restricts traffic in troubled areas.

The Safe Zone at the Harbor House and Eastport Terrace communities will close the normal flow of traffic on Madison Street for a month beginning April 12. From 4 p.m. to midnight, Madison Street will effectively become a one-way street.

The police hope the operation quells crime in the area, disrupting drug dealing at the two adjacent public housing communities. As part of the initiative, on April 17, police will hold an activity day for children, including face painting, a moon bounce, a race-car track, food, a DJ and a health fair at the complex's recreation center. Representatives from a variety of social service organizations will be on hand.

Annapolis Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop said Safe Zone deters criminal activity while "supporting the community in ways that general police patrols don't." Pristoop said the program deploys community relations officers, preventing any disruption to patrols in other parts of the city. The chief added that the public responds positively to the initiative, with police seeing an uptick in residents reporting crimes during and after the operation.

"We let people pass freely, but we discourage criminal activity," said Pristoop. "It doesn't take very long for those who don't belong there to realize they're not wanted."

Annapolis first used Safe Zones in 2008, deploying those resources in two other instances at Newtowne 20 and the Clay Street area. Pristoop said that after the Clay Street initiative, violent crimes in the area decreased by half.

The initiative has been used by police departments nationally but has drawn criticism. A federal appeals court found that the police in Washington violated the constitutional rights of residents when they set up a checkpoint in one crime-ridden neighborhood.

But Pristoop said the Annapolis effort, much like the version of Safe Zones that the Baltimore police have used since 2005, steers clear of the legal troubles that other departments have faced because officers don't prohibit movement in the way that a formal checkpoint can.

"The officers are under no orders to stop and detain people," said Pristoop. "Some people feel inconvenienced, but by and large, I think the community welcomes the interaction between the police and residents. I think it's the way we operate this. I know that there have been controversies, but it's the way that we're going to operate it."

A resident of Harbor House, a woman named Sheila who did not want her last name printed in case her comments offended the police or Annapolis Housing Authority, said she welcomed the police, but wasn't sure of what the lasting impact would be.

"It's great when they're here," she said. "But after, I really don't know."

Eric C. Brown, executive director of the housing authority, said he welcomes the police attention and that comments from residents have been "generally positive." Brown said the housing authority has informed residents of the initiative in notices.

"People are glad to see the police be more visible," Brown said. "The police aren't just interested in arresting people, but want to take a holistic approach to combating crime in the community. We're very glad to support the police on this initiative."

But Robert Eades, a community activist, said the program is a temporary fix.

"I'm not impressed," said Eades, a former public housing resident. "It's a joke. You have everybody who's dealing drugs from one area and they just go to the next area. If they're doing it in Eastport, they're just going to run the guys over to Robinwood. If you're going to deal with the problem, you need to blanket it all at one time so it doesn't shift."

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