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West End crimefighter to leave neighborhood

January 14, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Police say the nine blocks in Hagerstown known as the West End neighborhood are fertile ground for drug trafficking and violence.

But for the past nine years, when problems popped up there, they've had a hidden asset in fighting crime.

Now, that asset - West End Neighborhood Watch liaison Joe Imes - is moving out of the area, and police and neighbors are unsure who will fill the role or if public safety could take a hit without Imes' street smarts and contact lists.

"Basically we're going to have to find a replacement for him," said Hagerstown Police Sgt. Margaret Kline, who has worked with Imes since he began the Neighborhood Watch program.

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Imes, 51, a tree-trimmer by trade, lives on Church Street with his wife and two sons. He started the West End Neighborhood Watch in 1994, and as an unpaid volunteer has helped stem some of the neighborhood's worst problems, as well as help start a local crime watch Web site, www.Hagerstownwatch.org.

There are still plenty of things to keep an eye on, with drugs the top concern, Imes said. The West End's location near Interstate 81 makes it a great place to sell drugs, he said, and "it's so easy for them to come in, make a (drug) deal, make a loop and get out."

What got Imes started nearly nine years ago was a group of teenagers who verbally and physically threatened him and others on the corner of Church and High streets, just a few feet from his front door.

He said groups of 15 or 20 kids would crowd the intersection, "cuss people out and torment people." Some would vandalize cars as they drove by.

"They'd stand there. One would be on one side, one would be on the other, and they'd key the car," Imes said. "Sure. It's very intimidating."

He didn't start the Neighborhood Watch group without repercussions. One day, he was approached by a boy, 13 or 14 years old at the time, who was angry with him, he said.

"He started shoving at me, and then he just started punching me - punching me in the face. ... He just wasn't strong enough to really hurt me. He was handling me pretty good. ... He literally did flip me on my truck."

Since then, Imes has become a go-between for residents and police officers. If residents don't feel comfortable calling police, they can call Imes.

Imes' neighbor Gloria Schaffer said Imes has been a great help in the neighborhood.

"Joe was very on-hands and very alert to everything that was going on," Schaffer said. "And when someone had a problem they'd call him, and he'd seem to be the best - he'd take care of the situation. ... I don't think anyone could say anything negative for what he has done here."

Imes said police would call him to get a clearer idea of a situation. For instance, if there was a group of people hanging out on the corner, he could identify the people who were from the neighborhood, helping police figure out whether out-of-towners or local people were making waves.

"We are not on every corner," Kline said. And while the police department encourages officers to get to know the communities, Kline said the beats are large and neighbors "are not necessarily going to be acquainted enough with the officers."

And that is why Imes' work was important, Kline said.

Imes said he will move to property near Smithsburg, taking him out of the West End neighborhood, and the police liaison role that would have him working the phones sometimes for four hours a night.

Now, he said, "I don't have to worry about some drug lord popping me in the head."

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