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Cops: Downtown crime rare

Police say 'nuisance crime' is a problem but violent or randon crime is unusual

Police say 'nuisance crime' is a problem but violent or randon crime is unusual

July 02, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of occasional stories examining the problems of downtown Hagerstown and the potential solutions to those problems.




tammyb@herald-mail.com

Crime and downtown Hagerstown - it's gotten to be such a familiar refrain that it's easy to just sing along without a second thought.

Nearly every discussion about revitalizing downtown Hagerstown draws comments about crime - the perception of which, says city Economic Development Coordinator Deborah Everhart, is the No. 1 issue that comes up.

Just a few weeks ago, an historic church considered moving out of town in part, the minister said, because of crime in the neighborhood. A double shooting June 24 on Franklin Street didn't help.

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But the perception of crime in Hagerstown's downtown commercial district is greatly exaggerated, according to the cops who patrol there.

While they concede a problem of "nuisance crime" downtown, they say the incidence of violent or random crime is rare.

"We haven't had a shooting downtown in a long time," said Lt. William C. Wright III, commander of the new Downtown Squad, after the Franklin Street shooting. "It's not the only violent crime that's happened, but it's the most serious."

He said police closed a nearby bar after a recent fight. The police "have been making a lot of arrests at night," mostly for minor infractions, he said.

"Ninety-five percent of them are victimless crimes," said Sgt. Kevin Simmers, also assigned to the Downtown Squad, located across from City Hall on North Potomac Street. "They're not assaults."

Most crimes involve people who are already involved in risky activities, such as substance abuse or prostitution, police say.

Few incidents occur during the day, when most downtown businesses are open, according to police. The officers who patrol downtown estimate they make "a couple" of daytime arrests a week.

"We have no problem of people getting mugged," Wright said. "Very rarely does anybody get broken into."

While hard statistics on what kinds of crimes - and how many - occur in the downtown commercial area are unavailable because of a computer software problem that prevents officials from compiling them, police keep tabs on what Chief Arthur Smith calls "pin maps" at police headquarters on Burhans Boulevard.

These maps, which divide the city into quadrants, are marked with multi-colored pushpins indicating the types of crimes reported and where they are committed. For the months of March, April and May, the maps indicated that more crimes, and more serious crimes, were occurring outside the downtown area than within it.

The downtown area patrolled by the substation extends in a half-block area beyond Mulberry Street on the Eastern side, Jonathan and Summit streets on the Western side, Franklin Street on the Northern side and Antietam Street on the Southern side, according to Capt. Charles Summers.

"We have a couple of problem bars," Wright said, "but the biggest problem bar is not even downtown."

Yet "there are legitimate issues," Smith said. The complaint he hears most is comes from merchants "who say 'I can't run my business with this guy sleeping in my doorway,'" he said.

The police, Smith added, are "making a big effort to help the merchants downtown. It's a big priority for us to make the climate down there such that the businesses can succeed."

Creating the downtown squad was part of that effort.

The eight-member squad patrols on foot and bicycle, routinely checking on downtown businesses and monitoring the activities of some of the downtown regulars. "We check them out; we ask them where do they live," said Officer Chuck Streightiff. In some cases, the police try to issue "no trespassing" letters to people who hang around businesses or the library for no apparent reason. "It's usually the same people every day," Streightiff said.

"Most of them come from the cold weather shelter when it closes," added Officer Clif Briggs. "The cold weather shelter brings a lot of people downtown."

Since the downtown squad was organized in March, Wright has attempted to keep downtown businesses involved in the squad's activities. He invited representatives of about 170 businesses to a meeting to explain the squad's functions, he said, but most did not attend. He said he's also provided businesses with phone numbers for the downtown office and with cell numbers for the individual officers.

"This is an area that needs a high visibility presence," Wright said. "We're taking a very proactive approach."




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