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'Out-of-towners' causing problems in HotSpot area

May 01, 1999|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

A Georgia man is shot in an argument over a radio. Two men are shot on the same day in separate disputes. Another man is pistol-whipped and shot as he walks in an alley.

Since January, there have been six reports of gunfire in Hagerstown - four in April and all but one in the Jonathan Street area.

Police Chief Dale J. Jones attributes the continuing violence in the Hagerstown HotSpot area to drugs. But not just the dealers are to blame, he said.

"We need to reduce demand in addition to the supply side," said Jones.

Hagerstown's HotSpot area is a rectangular section of the city stretching from Prospect Avenue to Memorial Boulevard and bounded on the east and west by Prospect Street and Mulberry Street.

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"The drug dealers are still a problem because there still is a huge demand," he said.

Increasing police visibility helps to a degree, but other, more hardened, criminals will not be deterred by it, he said.

He said that while officers were investigating the first shooting on April 18, they heard the shots of the second, just blocks away.

"Visibility won't help with people that brazen," he said.

Jones said he will continue to work with Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and police officers to determine what action to take.

The mayor said this week the problems are mostly caused by "out-of-towners" He said police told him that one man charged in the April 24 shooting, Antonio Lambert, was from New York and only recently moved to a Hagerstown address.

With the idea that smaller crimes can be indicative of larger ones, Bruchey is asking city police to adopt a "no tolerance" crime policy.

Implementing this policy would mean focusing on less serious crimes such as loitering and drinking in public.

The aggressive plan would mean arresting more people and putting them in jail, said Bruchey.

"My approach is you have to try it all to see what works. If it's a bad idea then it's a bad idea but we won't know unless we try it," Bruchey said.

The fact that six shootings have occurred so far this year does not necessarily mean incidents will continue at that level, said Chief Jones.

Jones said that in 1997 there were four homicides during the first three months and none for the rest of the year.

"You never can tell. It could come in bunches or not," he said.

Of the six incidents this year, arrests have been made in three and others are pending, according to Capt. Robert Voytko, head of the city patrol division.

"I am extremely pleased with the way our investigations are going. We are making progress on most of them," he said.

Voytko said the crime that Hagerstown is experiencing is part of a larger trend of increasing violence nationwide.

"We need to take the emotion and hysteria out of it," and look at what is motivating such crimes instead of just reacting after they occur, he said.

HotSpot Coordinator Carolyn Brooks says a communitywide effort is what is needed.

"Crime fighting needs to be a collaborative effort with residents and police. We can't depend on the police to fix everything," she said.

Washington County Narcotics Task Force Director Sgt. Bob Leatherman agrees.

Members of the public need to "tell what they see and what they hear," he said.

Leatherman said tips from the public have been on the decline.

"When they stop calling, it hurts us," he said.

He said police may not be able to make an arrest on every tip but information compiled may be enough to get the criminals off the street at a later date.

Threats and retaliation are a possibility, but Leatherman says people have to take risks to make progress.

"People need to think about what is more important. 'Are you going to stand up and be heard or let the dealers walk all over you?'" he said.

Jones, meanwhile, said the police department made 500 drug-related arrests in 1997 and is stepping up patrols to continue enforcement efforts this year.

But he says even that is not enough.

Increased drug education and intervention programs are also needed to combat the problem, he said.

He goes so far as to recommend random drug testing for employees of city businesses to help solve the problem.

Jones estimates 70 percent of drug users in the city work while under the influence. He agrees that such a requirement would upset some employees but believes the anti-drug message it would send would be worth it.

"We can't close our eyes to it," Jones said of the drug problem.

Fear of testing positive and losing your job would likely keep users clean, he said.

He said employers wouldn't be spending that much money for the testing since they would save money lost in quality of service and safety.

Staff writer Dan Kulin contributed to this article.

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