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HotSpot could be big loss for community

January 13, 2003|By BOB MAGINNIS

Five years ago Maryland officials assembled in Baltimore to launch what they said was a completely new approach to fighting crime. As U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno listened, state officials said that they would target crime-ridden neighborhoods by getting groups of agencies to work together instead of battling illegal activity in isolation. It was the HotSpots anti-crime initiative and Hagerstown's Jonathan Street was one of the first 36 areas targeted.

But five years later the program's champion, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lost her bid for governor. And the victor, Robert Ehrlich, has just appointed Edward Norris to head the Maryland State Police - and the former Baltimore City Police Commissioner is no fan of the HotSpots program.

Norris' disdain comes despite the fact that 18 of the original 36 HotSpots saw a decrease of crime of 25 percent or more from 1996 to 2000, according to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

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In 1998, a year after Hagerstown received its first grant, city police reported a 20 percent drop in crime in the HotSpot area. Crime fell at the same rate across the city that year, though some attribute part of that to the rollout of a new street crimes unit.

What effect has the HotSpot program had on Hagerstown? And more important, if state officials end the program, what will be lost here?

To get answers, I spoke to several local officials who work with the HotSpots program.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith told me that if a community is trying to control crime, it must have both short- and long-term strategies. Basic police work is the short-term strategy, Smith said, while HotSpots enrichment programs like the after-school homework clubs work on building better citizens.

The HotSpots program brought funds for two additional police officers, Smith said, but it also got officers working with agents of the Maryland Parole and Probation Department.

When police began to accompany agents visiting ex-offenders, they became familiar with them, Smith said, so that if they committed new crimes, officers knew them by sight.

"When people came out of jail, we had a handle on who they were and what they were doing," Smith said.

If the grant is not renewed, Smith said those positions would be lost. Also lost would be the requirement that parole agents work with police, though Smith said he would try to keep that relationship alive.

Asked about some criticism that the program has only chased criminals to another part of the city, Smith said it's true that some relocated because of intense enforcement.

"But we can now hold what we have in the HotSpot with a minimum of resources" and then target crime elsewhere, Smith said.

Asked about the benefits of the program's four after-school homework club programs, Washington County Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said the system hasn't established a link between local programs and improved academic performance.

But Morgan said there are "gobs of data" to back up the value of after-school programs like those run by the HotSpot.

"There is a huge amount of evidence that extended-day, extended-week and extended-year programs" help the neediest children catch up academically, Morgan said.

If the program is cut, those services need to continue, Morgan said, even if another agency has to take on the task.

Carolyn Brooks, executive director of the HotSpot program since it began, is uncertain what will happen. The $217,000 grant that funds her agency runs out in June of this year, and she would normally be preparing the next grant application now.

Last week Brooks met with HotSpot coordinators from around the state to compare notes and look at how the program might continue.

She said the program's main strength has been its ability to get the police and parole agents working with agencies like the Washington County Health Department and the local NAACP chapter to give people in need one place to go to get help.

Brooks said that having a director has allowed the program to coordinate help from agencies and have someone in place to write grants for items like the Bethel Gardens police substation.

The after-school enrichment programs help with the long-term task of building better citizens by giving a child who might be frustrated with schoolwork some help to stay on track.

"If you've got a frustrated little person, they can grow into a frustrated big person," she said.

If state money is lost, Brooks hopes that the local governments would consider funding the program, noting that originally the state grants were only supposed to last for three years.

"If you look at the amount of dollars spent in our communities, this is a small amount for a big return," Brooks said.

It seems clear that if the program is shut down, the city government would have to absorb the cost of the two extra police officers - or risk the charge that it was abandoning the black community to the drug dealers.

But the after-school programs, the coordination of services and Brooks' grant-writing skills are another story. The city and county could split the cost, but these are the same two governments that have only grudgingly given assistance to Community Rescue Service for emergency medical care for some of the county's poorest people. In a time of tight budgets, those who aren't at death's door might find the door to local dollars isn't open to them.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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