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Police work to take back streets

November 26, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - In the kitchen of the alleged drug house, police thought the hallway would be too narrow to let more than one protective-vested officer pass at once. Before they took their cracks at the apartment's door, they talked about their concerns for what might be inside.

Topping the list: A 12-gauge shotgun.

In the darkness of a chilly October night, officers repeated their warning shouts, calling out, "Police, search warrant, open up. Do it now."

Below the second-story apartment, where police and residents had reported seeing a constant stream of people coming and going, people later would report seeing men with guns outside a residence. In addition to their service guns, police officers carried a battering ram.

"This is typical of what we call a smoke house, where a lot of users will come and lay their heads," said Sgt. Jim Robison as members of Hagerstown Police Department's street-crimes and downtown units searched the place.

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A raid of the apartment at 114 W. Franklin St. on Oct. 26 turned up only a crack pipe, police said.

During a bicycle ride along with a downtown police squad member, the streets also were quiet.

On the other side of City Hall, at Otterbein United Methodist Church on 108 E. Franklin St., more than a dozen police officers gathered late at night for a traffic slowdown, in which every vehicle with any violation - burned-out headlights, no seat belts, expired plates - was pulled over and searched by a dog for drugs.

"It's kind of like an ownership thing, that we're taking charge," said Sgt. Kevin Simmers, who as head of the downtown squad has supervised several slowdowns at the church this year.

Leads and photos

Simmers said earlier this month that grants have funded the personnel for slowdowns, which the police have conducted once a month at various locations since April. During a typical slowdown, police stop about 50 vehicles, and make two to five drug arrests and two to five traffic arrests for violations such as driving under the influence and driving without a license, Simmers said.

In addition to leading to drug arrests, the strategy allows officers to take pictures of hundreds of motorists, Simmers said. The photographs later can be used to identify suspects in future investigations, he said.

For Kyle Minnick, a 21-year-old driver with an unbuckled seat belt and a gun visible in the back seat, the slowdown made sense.

A hunter, Minnick said the gun was unloaded and licensed. Police gave him the OK to leave after issuing a warning to use his seat belt, he said.

"I understand. I start police academy in January, so I understand what they're doing, and why they're doing it," said Minnick, who explained that he was in a hurry when he got behind the wheel and neglected to buckle up.

Detective Brian Hook, a K-9 handler, played with Sam, an exuberant yellow Labrador retriever, between searches.

"Cigarettes, weed?" an officer asked the driver of the Toyota Matrix, who stood outside the vehicle as police tried to pinpoint what had caused Sam to signal he smelled drugs.

Like a nonsmoker reacting to the odor of an extinguished cigarette, Sam can sense what's happened over the course of a vehicle's life, Hook said. Although the dog signaled that the Toyota Matrix once contained drugs, officers turned up nothing.

Several officers commented on a smell emanating from the vehicle, saying they thought the upholstery had been wet, and they asked the driver repeatedly whether he knew what had been in the car. The young man only shrugged his shoulders.

"You'd be surprised at the amount of people who say, 'Hey, I smoke weed, I allow my friends to smoke weed in my car,'" Hook said.

Outside the church, where police have stepped up their patrols since the July 31 slaying of 20-year-old Trisiviah Rodriguez, a sign admonished drivers, "No mask will ever hide your face from God."

Rodriguez died just yards away.

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