HotSpot's future depends on small victories

August 26, 1999

Three years ago, the State of Maryland sent a $180,000 grant to Hagerstown as part of a new anti-crime effort called the HotSpots initiative. It targeted the Jonathan Street area, which statistics showed accounted for 25 percent of the county's violent crime. But instead of just adding police in the manner of traditional anti-crime efforts, the HotSpots program was designed as a full-court press, adding everything from more probation officers to after-school homework clubs.

In a ceremony earlier this month held at the Asbury Methodist Chruch, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland lieutenant governor, noted that the Hotsapot crime rate has decreased and delivered the third annual grant of more than $100,000 to continue the effort. For Carolyn W. Brooks, the local program's coordinator, it was gratifying to see the state recognize local accomplishments.

But Brooks also knows that after this year, she (or her successor) may have to persuade local governments to pick up the tab. This week I talked to her about what's been accomplished so far, and got the feeling that this effort is not going to produce some splashy, headline-grabbing triumph, but a series of small victories.


Geography makes the job more difficult. What makes the area so attractive to distributon operations like Staples - the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81 - also brings in drug dealers seeking better prices and a place where they're less likely to get shot doing business.

Brooks sees one part of her job as keeping the HotSpot area's problems before the public.

"We meet with the county (commissioners) regularly, address their concerns and put the spotlight on the situation. In that way, we're able to chip away at the issues, like how do we make people who've invaded our space leave?"

Answering her own question, Brooks says that part of the answer is occasional events in which residents take to the streets to declare their opposition to the drug trade.

"We don't see the drug dealers at those events, and it's not like that's going to get them to leave town, but the message is still conveyed to the undesirables," she said.

Such events also send a message to those who live in the HotSpots area that it's their duty to get involved, Brooks said.

"We're constantly talking about the responsibility of the whole community to participate in this effort," Brooks said.

Asked about some of the successes the program has racked up in its first two years, Brooks said she was proudest of the youth efforts, like the one which brought teenage instructors from a suburban dance school into the HotSpots area on Saturday mornings. It not only keeps youngsters off the street, she said, but created a connection between groups inside and outside the neighborhood that didn't exist before.

But the newest, and most potentially satisfying effort, Brooks said, is getting Washington County to become a "Character Counts" community. Part of a nationwide effort, the program hopes to instill the six pillars of character - caring, responsibility, fairness, respect, trustworthiness and citizenship - into schools, business and the community's public life.

Making the intitative county-wide, Brooks said, "doesn't put the onus on one particular area to improve its character."

Brooks says is big part of her job is keeping the whole community focused on the HotSpot, so people outside it are aware of the problems that exist and how they can help.

"There have been food donations, some cash donations and we even have some folks who are willing to do some one-on-one tutoring." Brooks said.

"This is a very generous community. I've never had a need that somebody hasn't steppped up to the plate to fulfill," she said.

What's the strongest effort in favor of local funding of this program?

"My strongest argument is that it's a collaborative effort. It's not just one agency and we're not duplicating efforts. Our broad-based accomplishments are that we've created an awareness of the issues that affect our communities...and we're planning the steps we need to make it better," she said.

Other projects, planned or already running, include:

  • working to get run-down properties fixed up or demolished,
  • pushing landlords to screen tenants and to keep a closer watch over their properties,
  • having the Martin Luther King Center, where Head Start classes are held, declare a drug-free school zone, and
  • attempting to get more parent-participation in HotSpot programs.

Brooks says nothing she's tried has failed outright, and that she's in it for the long haul to help the neighborhood chase out the drug dealers.

"It's not the residents who are causing the problems. We have good people here who are trying to survive," she said.

This is a little bit of sugar-coating on Brooks' part, because as Sgt. Bob Leatherman of the Narcotics Task Force recently told me, there are local people who are only too willing to provide shelter to out-of-town dealers. And within the HotSpots area, there's a group of residents who hasn't agreed with Brooks or her program since Day One.

Brooks has told me previously that she doesn't try to accomplish things through confrontation, preferring persuasion instead. She'll need those skills, and much more, when it comes time to ask local government to pick up the tab when the state money runs out.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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