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West End residents want action on crime problems

May 12, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

West End resident Joe Imes said he remembers a friendly, close-knit neighborhood when he moved to West Church Street about 20 years ago.

But Imes, president of West End Against Trouble, Crime and Harassment (WATCH), said he would think twice about raising a family in today's environment.

"It I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have bought a house anywhere in this city," he said. "It's only going to get worse if we don't make it better."

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His is one of a chorus of voices that has reached a loud level. Many residents contend the Hagerstown Police Department is unwilling or unable to solve the crime problems.

One woman, who asked that her name not be used because she fears the swarms of young adults that hang out on street corners, said she has seen rapid deterioration in the area over the last three years.

Occasional mild disturbances have degenerated into nightly bouts of public drinking, fights and intimidation on Winter and George streets, she said. After months of calling the police several times a night, the woman said she now just shrugs in despair.

"People in this area have given up calling the police," she said. "It doesn't do any good."

The crime problems in the West End pose a tactical challenge for police officials, who also face serious problems elsewhere. They also present a political dilemma for Mayor Steven T. Sager, who finds crime a major issue in his re-election bid.

Sager said he understands residents' concerns and has proposed solutions, including hiring more police.

"What got everyone's attention was the violent crime over the last several months," he said.

Still, interviews with a number of residents suggest that Sager and police officials have their work cut out for them. Many contend their neighborhood has been lost in the drive to fight crime in the Jonathan Street corridor.

City officials have designated that area as Washington County's "hot spot," making it eligible for state and federal funds to target crime. While many West End residents acknowledge Jonathan Street needs more help, some have expressed concerns that other neighborhoods could be harmed.

"Concentrating on one area is just going to move crime from one area to another," said Gerry Rickard Sr., liaison of the Northwest Neighborhood Crime Watch. "Get rid of the problem. Don't just push it around."

Police Chief Dale J. Jones conceded that, to some extent, criminal activity might be driven to other areas. But he defended the hot spot program and his department's approach to fighting crime.

Jones said the initiative will help in the most troubled area of the city while getting funding that would not otherwise be available.

"I think it's a very good plan," he said. "You have to start somewhere."

Sager said the hot spot initiative can be replicated in other neighborhoods if it proves successful in the Jonathan Street corridor. And he said the program, which combines traditional police enforcement with prevention and counseling efforts, is designed to stamp out crime altogether.

"The idea isn't just to move it around," he said. "The idea is to squish it."

Fear of crime in the West End, however, strikes a nerve that runs well beyond philosophical disagreements over crime-fighting strategies. Many residents simply do not feel as if the city leadership has given their problems serious attention.

Even Sager's recent calls to hire more police officers have fallen short among some residents.

"It's too little, too late. Everything Mayor Sager wants to do goes into downtown Hagerstown," said Ella Shain, who lives on George Street. "The West End feels like ... we get the leftovers."

Sager reeled off a list of accomplishments in the police force, from transferring desk officers to street positions to snaring federal and state crime-fighting grants.

Sager said some changes have been slow to come because Jones needed time to assess the department when he was hired.

But residents like Shain have expressed frustration with Jones and the department.

Shain said the chief addressed a neighborhood group a few months ago to explain the limitations on police officers.

"All we heard is what he couldn't do," she said.

Jones said he shares residents' frustrations. He said officers working overtime the next four months should cut response times. But he cautioned that police cannot simply round people up and arrest them.

"You can double the police force if you want to," he said. "There's still only a certain authority that officers will have."

Noting the problems they have seen this winter, many residents said they are frightened in anticipation of the summer, when outdoor disturbances are usually greater.

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