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Street crime unit makes early impact

February 05, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Street crime unit makes early impact

Hagerstown's new street crime unit made 22 arrests in its first week of operation, an early indication that it may be having the impact city leaders hoped for when they launched it, officials said.

Of those arrests, 11 were on felony drug charges, police said. To put that in perspective, city police last year made 172 drug arrests, or a little more than three a week.

Although it may be impossible to maintain that arrest level, Police Chief Dale J. Jones and other officials expressed optimism that the street team will reduce the level of crime.

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"We hope that it will," Jones said. "We're very pleased with the first week."

Capt. Robert Voytko said the street crime unit targeted mostly high-crime areas in Hagerstown's so-called "hot spot" and the Westview public housing complex in the West End.

Working Tuesday through Saturday last week, the team charged 10 adults and one juvenile with drug distribution, three juveniles with drug possession and four adults and one juvenile with other offenses.

Voytko said the unit also arrested three people on outstanding warrants and confiscated $2,235 in suspected drug money. Officers on the team did a bit of everything, including writing parking tickets, he said.

"We're enforcing everything," he said.

Police had planned to launch a street crime unit later this year to combat growing drug traffic and violence in certain parts of the city but moved up the date after a number of recent shootings.

The unit includes one sergeant, five patrol officers, four detectives and agents from the Washington County Narcotics Task Force. NTF agents will rotate tours of duty on the team and four detectives will take turns serving on the unit in pairs, Jones said.

While Jones and Voytko said it is too early to tell whether the team will have the desired impact, both pointed to encouraging early signs.

Voytko said there appeared to be fewer drug dealers in the Jonathan Street area by the end of the week, although he said that could be attributed to other factors as well.

Sgt. Margaret Kline, commander of the department's Neighborhood Policing Unit, said she has heard reports from her officers and area residents that indicate the team is affecting drug dealers.

"They have noticed that some of these guys are missing," she said. "Jonathan Street was like a ghost town (Thursday night). They actually went somewhere else to work."

That's the idea, according to Jones, who said many of the people charged with selling drugs are from out of state. He said the unit should provide a visible presence that not only will enforce the law, but will deter crime.

Jones said the team is designed to be mobile and flexible so it can follow criminals throughout the city until they decide to leave altogether.

"We intend to keep this up for an extended period of time - maybe over several years, at least," Jones said.

Because police launched the team earlier than expected, they will be shorthanded in other areas until new hires graduate from the police academy, officials said.

To create the unit, police pulled two community police officers from the Jonathan Street area, one who had patrolled the city's public housing complexes, one officer from the canine unit and one patrol officer.

Voytko said having the unit gives police certain advantages. It is difficult for a sector officer to deal with a large group of people, for instance. The street unit provides more resources, he said.

But Voytko stressed that the unit works like the rest of the force.

"Sector officers and the street crime unit are essentially one," he said.

Most of the drug arrests are single-buy busts in which an undercover officer purchases drugs and uniformed officers move in, officials said. Cases worked by the narcotics task force tend to be more in-depth, said task force Director Sgt. Charles Summers.

Summers said losing two agents to the street team will affect his operation, but he said it is too early to tell by how much. Summers said, however, the move will be worth it if it offers a police presence strong enough to chase away drug dealers.

"Eventually, I'm sure it will have an effect and they'll decide the area is a little too hot and change their tactics or change their location, or maybe even move out of the area altogether," he said.

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