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Street Crime Unit is one year old

February 03, 1999|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

Austin Burnett and his wife Thelma have seen a lot from their store window at 400 N. Jonathan St.

For 17 years the couple has operated Thelma's Grocery, at the center of what is now the designated HotSpot high-crime area, despite drug deals, shootings and violence outside.

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From their vantage point, crime, particularly shootings, has increased in the past year, said Austin Burnett.

There were five shootings in the Jonathan Street area in 1998 compared with at least three in 1997.

A year ago, the Hagerstown City Police Department formed the Street Crime Unit to address increasing violence and drug activity in the city's so-called HotSpot - a roughly rectangular area stretching from Prospect Avenue to Memorial Boulevard and bounded to the east and west by Prospect Street and Mulberry Street.

The special unit made 355 arrests, including 300 drug arrests in 1998. That compares with 218 drug arrests made by city police overall in 1997.

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Another 150 drug arrests were made in 1998 by city police regular patrol officers.

The Street Crime Unit is made up of a sergeant, five patrol officers, including a canine unit, four detectives and agents from the Washington County Narcotics Task Force.

The crime unit, which averages two to 10 arrests a week, is having a positive effect, said Sgt. John Ryder, who heads the unit.

Fighting drug and violent crime in that area is a difficult job because of the constant influx of drug dealers from Florida and New York, Ryder said.

The dealers come to Hagerstown for the high prices their drugs will yield, he said.

More dealers means more arrests but "you arrest one and another comes to replace him," according to Ryder.

Last year, state officials awarded Washington County $221,000 to fight crime under its Maryland HotSpot Communities Initiative area. That included about $43,000 a year to hire full-time coordinator, Carolyn Brooks.

The unit responded to 789 miscellaneous calls and filled out 376 field interrogation cards, which detail descriptions and other information about people who have engaged in suspicious behavior. This information is entered into the police computer system and used as a reference.

The unit assisted with a Jan. 21 operation in which six federal indictments alleging drug violations were served along with arrest warrants for 31 people.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said he is proud of the street crimes unit and the presence its members have become in the Jonathan Street area.

"It's definitely needed," he said.

Bruchey said crime would be further reduced if residents would report crimes they witness or suspicious activity.

Stanley Brown Jr., vice president of the community advocacy group Brothers United Who Dare To Care Inc., has another suggestion.

"Maybe it's time to add other law enforcement," he said.

City police are making an impact on crime, but the problem has become pervasive, he said.

Brown recommends enlisting the help of the Washington County Sheriff's Department and the Maryland State Police to fight the drug problem in that area.

Austin Burnett suggested that part of the solution might be to vary the crime unit officers' hours.

"I hate to criticize anyone but I would say they are usually around at the wrong times. They should change their schedule," said Burnett.

He said most crimes occur after midnight and in the early morning hours.

Reactions from other Jonathan Street residents about the street crimes unit has been mixed.

Ruth Monroe, said she feels the unit has "had a good impact" in terms of reducing crime in the HotSpot area.

As director of the Memorial Recreation Center on North Street and in her position on HotSpot committees, she has had an opportunity to speak with many people about the problem, she said.

Monroe said however, many of the residents she's spoken with have differing views about the efficacy of the street crimes unit.

"Some say they're more visible, some say they are less," she said.

Monroe said she has noticed an increased police presence, particularly in the form of bicycle patrols in the summer.

The street crimes unit has changed since it was initiated last January, said Police Chief Dale J. Jones.

In the early months, the participation by the Narcotics Task Force was heavy. It has since been reduced to an as-needed basis, he said.

"A year ago this time we were experiencing a violent call once a week," said Captain Robert Voytko, head of the police's patrol division.

Calls like the one on Sunday, when a man was stabbed after shots were fired at JR's Cafe on Jonathan Street, now come in every few months, he said.

"We've taken a lot of crime off the street compared with last year," he said.

Voytko said the relationship with the residents in the HotSpot area has improved.

"They're more responsive to us. I think they see us as trying to do the right thing there," he said.

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