West End fights uphill crime battle

March 18, 1997

Joe Imes is not a big man, not even close to six feet tall. But spend some time with this resident of Hagerstown's West End and you'll see he's tough and wiry, like the trees he trims for a living.

But it wasn't trees Imes was talking about trimming this past Monday night, it was the crime and rowdyism he and the members of W.A.T.C.H. are convinced is getting worse every day.

The group's initials stand for "West End Against Trouble, Crime and Harassment." I met Imes and his block captains, most of whom declined to be named, in the Salvation Army hall to listen to their concerns and problems.


Imes said he's been a West End resident for 23 or 24 years, ever since he bought the house he lives in from his grandmother. There was a time, not so long ago, he said, when the neighborhood was safe and secure. Now, he says, there have been four assaults in a period of four months, including one which left a man with a serious head injury.

James Edward Gormours, 42, was found lying in a pool of his own blood in an alley between James and Norway streets. Suspects have since been charged, but Imes and company find little comfort in that. He was assaulted himself last October, Imes said.

"I was standing in front of my house and was assaulted by a 14-year-old because of my involvement with a neighborhood watch group," Imes.

Is the problem most residents face mainly groups of youth who loiter and make noise?

Noise is one problem, the group's members said, but it's also that the loiterers curse at anyone who looks at them. One member of the group, who said she'd lived in the neighborhood for 51 years, said that on the way to Monday's meeting she'd had to walk out in the street because a group of 16 youths ("I know it was 16 because I counted them," she said) stood in the sidewalk and blocked her way.

What do police do when you call in a complaint?

"They respond," said Imes, but added that usually someone in the group of hangers-on has a police scanner, which gives the group advance warning.

"Due to the lack of patrolmen on the street, by the time they get here, they (the youths) are already gone," Imes said.

Imes conceded the city has been some help, putting up six or seven bright sodium-vapor lights. What police really need to do, say some members of the group, is "to come to our houses and just sit and watch what happens."

It gripes them that the city has money for other projects, like the renovation of Public Square, but not for additional police manpower. They said they were told by Robert Weaver, Washington County Supervisor of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, that they should just stay in their homes, because the problem is too big for anyone to solve. Members also said Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones told them would be three years before he had the manpower to solve the problem.

Weaver told me his meeting with W.A.T.C.H. took place more than a year ago, but said "It would be extremely unlikely I would have said any such thing."

Weaver said he did tell them to concentrate "on controlling what could be controlled." Depending on what time of day it is and how much noise is being made, it's tough to tell a teen-ager he can't gather with his friends on front of the house, Weaver said.

"I suggested that they pinpoint specific things that would be chargeable offenses and concentrate on those," he said.

Chief Jones' comments will be less comforting to the group.

Asked about the idea that he'd have more officers to deploy in three years, Jones says there is no projection "that there will be any more officers then than there are today."

He's talked with the mayor and council about resources, he said, but has no commitments to add any officers, except in those areas where they've gotten grants for neighborhood officers.

Could that happen in this area?

Maybe, Jones said, but added that a program called "Citizens on Patrol," a kind of enhanced watch group, seems a more realistic possibility. Police have tried undercover surveillance, Jones said, "and haven't come away with much."

"I've got to give a lot of credit to Joe Imes and the people in that neighborhood. They're not afraid to call us," he said.

W.A.T.C.H. members want more than credit, however. They want a bike or foot patrol in their area, and they may have a better chance of getting one because this is an election year.

I pass through the West End almost every day on U.S. 40, but I hadn't really toured the area in a long while until last Monday.

Riding along and looking at the narrow streets, with houses so close together that two neighbors can shake hands without either one having to leave home, and it's a wonder people get along as well as they do. There's little open space for kids to gather, and when 10 or 15 do it on a narrow sidewalk, the group looks bigger than it is. And if the only available entrainment is ragging on some old-timer like me, that's what many will do.

Part of the solution to this problem will be giving those groups something positive to do, perhaps by creating another satellite station of the Boys and Girls Club, like the one that opened recently in Frederick Manor. There'd probably still be kids on the corner, but not as many, and not any who could argue that they were there because "There's nothin' to do in this town."

The other part will be to look at grants available for neighborhood policing, because as Weaver told me, when the workday is done, "everyone is entitled to a restful night."

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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