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Violent crimes have dropped in HotSpot

February 11, 2002

Violent crimes have dropped in HotSpot



By ANDREW SCHOTZ
andrews@herald-mail.com


Ed Hood II doesn't miss the daily jumble of prostitutes and drug users outside Market Lot Liquors.

"People were under the influence of drugs. Just dealing with that type of person in the grips of addiction ... just having them around was a nuisance," said Hood, who has worked at the market on West Church Street, off Jonathan Street, for 16 years.

For a while, it was the quality of life around the market that was declining. Now, it's the crime rate, and Hood is glad.

Most of the prostitutes and drug users are gone.

"Even though we still see hints of (crime), we don't see much," he said. "It had us on edge almost all the time. We didn't know if we'd have to defend ourselves or call the police ... just to feel safe."

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Crime statistics back up Hood's growing sense of security.

Since the Hagerstown Police Department launched a state HotSpot program, crime in and around the downtown has dropped.

In fiscal year 1997, there were 121 violent crimes in the Hagerstown HotSpot. Two years later, there were 85, a decrease of almost 30 percent.

When property crimes were added for those two years, the drop was nearly 15 percent.

More recent figures are not available because the police department's computer system went down in 1999.

Capt. Jack Moulton said a dispute involving a vendor has been settled, so the system should be running again this year.

The Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, which oversees the statewide HotSpots Communities Initiative, calls it "a comprehensive community driven crime-fighting strategy."

Sixty-two neighborhoods across Maryland were targeted because of their disproportionate amount of crime.

For many people, Jonathan Street was synonymous with crime in Hagerstown, and city police first focused their efforts there, Lt. Margaret Kline said.

However, other parts of the city weren't immune. The Hagerstown HotSpot encompasses the downtown and reaches beyond it.

The boundaries are Prospect Avenue to the north, Memorial Boulevard to the south and Mulberry Street to the east.

The border runs roughly along Prospect Street on the west end, except for a jutting "tail" made up of Salem Avenue, West Side Avenue, West Franklin Street, High Street and West Washington Street.

East Franklin Street resident James Zawatski said he's not outside his home enough to tell whether crime has dropped.

He's noticed, though, that the street fights and the broken windows haven't stopped.

"There's always some kind of minor disturbance," he said.

But when something breaks, the police are there.

"They usually put a pretty quick end to anything that might be starting," Zawatski said. "They're on the ball."

After targeting drug trafficking in the Jonathan Street area, Hagerstown Police saw something they expected: dealers moving their trades to other neighborhoods.

"The displacement has happened," Kline said. "We have seen this. ... When things get too hot, they will go somewhere else."

The Hagerstown HotSpot has several components, including police patrols, probation and parole supervision, a coordinator, youth after-school programs and community groups.

Kline said each ingredient contributes, so "it's not a simple answer" why HotSpot is working.

A big piece, though, is the officer devoted to the Jonathan Street area. For about two years, it was Officer Gerry Kendle, but the position has been vacant since October when Kendle, a reservist, was called up for duty.

"When he was put on the beat, it made a big difference," Hood said.

A second HotSpot officer works the downtown and West End. Officer Brad Helman was assigned to that beat Feb. 1.

The two HotSpot officers are supposed to be "eyes and ears," passing along information about drug activity, reporting code violations and noticing general changes in the neighborhoods.

"They should be the first person to notice that something is starting to brew," Kline said.

As Kline said, it's tough to pick out a single reason for the decline of HotSpot crime.

For one thing, crime in Hagerstown as a whole is dropping, too.

Violent crime in the city went down almost 20 percent from 1996 to 2000. Violent and property crimes combined went down about 16 percent over that period.

At the same, violent crime in Washington County rose 2 percent. The level of violent and property crimes combined stayed the same.

Not everyone believes the HotSpot program works.

Janet Walker and Constance Jackson, who live in apartments at Jonathan and Bethel streets, believe that residents stifled crime over the last year in spite of the police.

"I feel like the officers aren't doing their job ...," Jackson said. "They get smart with you."

"There's never one around when you need one," Walker said.

"By sticking together, we're doing a good job ...," Jackson said. "We froze all that. We said, 'If you're going to shoot, go shoot somewhere else.' "

Children can play again and people can walk down the street without pushing past crowds, she said.

Kline said some residents have taken to the program more than others.

"Part of that is accepting the philosophy that the police cannot do it all themselves," she said.

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