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Crime cools in 'hot spot'

October 05, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Violent crime dropped by nearly 20 percent in Hagerstown's high-crime "hot spot" area during the first half of 1998, providing evidence that Gov. Parris N. Glendening's highly touted approach to crime is working, state officials said last week.

The reduction mirrors a similar drop in the overall crime rate throughout the city. Advocates of the Maryland HotSpots Communities Initiative said that indicates the program is not only cracking down on offenders in the area, but is having a positive effect in nearby neighborhoods as well.

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"Certainly it's encouraging that the statistics reflect that, but it's still a work in progress," said Carolyn W. Brooks, coordinator of Hagerstown HotSpot. "We just have to stay vigilant."

In 1997, Washington County received a $221,000 grant to create one of 36 HotSpot zones throughout Maryland. Local authorities designated a roughly half-mile swath of Hagerstown where nearly a quarter of the county's violent crime occurs.

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The so-called "hot spot" runs from Prospect Avenue to Memorial Boulevard and is bounded on the east and west by Prospect and Mulberry streets.

The idea behind the initiative is to target small, high-crime neighborhoods with a comprehensive attack that combines the police, community groups, parole and probation agents and after-school programs.

By coordinating the various agencies and community groups in a way they never had before, officials hoped to stamp out current crime and destroy the conditions that breed new lawlessness.

As the program heads into its second year, officials from the governor's office to Jonathan Street praised the early results.

"We're getting some better results that we had hoped for, and it's not just in the statistics," said Charles R. Messmer, a jail substance abuse administrator who helped write the original grant proposal.

"What we wanted out of this HotSpot initiative, and what was presented to us, was that when you have an impact on one area, it tended to have an effect on other areas," he said.

At a meeting of the state's HotSpot teams last week, Washington County received an honorable mention for its parole and probation efforts.

Crime also dropped by about 20 percent in the entire city during the first six months, compared with the same period last year. Hagerstown Police Chief Dale J. Jones attributed that not only to efforts to crack down on crime in the HotSpot zone but also changes that the departments has made elsewhere.

The police launched their street crime unit Jan. 24. Consisting of six officers and a sergeant, the unit is a highly mobile team that can seek out criminals rather than react passively to crime.

Jones said the group has had dramatic results. Since its inception, it has been involved in 199 adult drug arrests and 39 juvenile drug arrests, he said.

Since it is not part of the HotSpot initiative, the street crime unit can also work other problem areas, like the Westview Housing development.

"We've fluctuated that, moved it to hit areas most in need," Jones said.

Jones said the street crime unit has worked closely with the Washington County Narcotics Task Force, which recently merged with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

When the HotSpot program was announced in March 1997, community leaders in the West End and other places expressed concerns that a crackdown in the Jonathan Street area would merely push more crime into their neighborhoods.

But the statistics indicate that has not happened.

Joe Imes, who runs a neighborhood watch group in the West End, said he still is not a fan of the HotSpot program because he thinks officials should take a citywide approach to crime.

But Imes said he has received fewer calls from residents this year than last. He said he has seen a stronger police presence and quicker response times.

Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, said those who fear pushing crime from one neighborhood to another think of crime like a balloon.

If you squeeze a balloon, the air simply pushes against another spot, he said.

Sarbanes said that analogy is more likely if the approach is limited, like putting an extra officer on a street.

The HotSpot effort, however, is more akin to a mosquito problem, Sarbanes said.

"If you get rid of the bog that breeds mosquitoes, you help the surrounding puddles," he said. "There isn't a fixed amount of crime."

Both police and HotSpot leaders plan changes for the next year of the program.

Jones said 10 officers hired this year by the department will complete their training this month and bring the department up to full strength. Those officers include seven additional positions that were created last year.

Sarbanes said state officials plan to triple the HotSpot funding and expand the number of HotSpot zones.

Jones said he also hopes to improve cooperation with the community, a process he said has already begun.

"We're getting more calls and more information in the calls we get," he said.

Brooks also said she hopes to involve more residents. She said several residents have asked about starting a citizens patrol group.

"We want to go out and make a statement that we won't tolerate drug use," she said.

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