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David Hanlin: Revitalization could make downtown a safer place

March 07, 2012|By DAVID HANLIN

In my Dec. 28 column, I identified steps that should be pursued to revitalize downtown. Some readers and others in the community have challenged the statement, “Downtown is probably the most crime-free part of the city.” I wrote that people need to feel safe; and the perception, warranted or not, is that downtown is not safe. This perception needs to be changed.

Hagerstown Police Chief Art Smith and the city council have made safety in downtown Hagerstown a priority. Investments in crime cameras and computer systems have been targeted specifically for downtown. These systems have enabled the Hagerstown Police Department (HPD) to use very modern, sophisticated concepts of data analysis to analyze patterns of criminal activity with crime prevention in mind.

HPD, almost daily, updates statistics and strategies for dealing with crime patterns. Major strategy sessions occur at least every two weeks and more often if indicated. With all of this data and associated analysis, policing is much more effective. It is targeted, intentional and goal-oriented. 

This data is reported to the FBI and is available in a user-friendly format at www.crimereports.com. Crime incidents are pinpointed to the block of a neighborhood. Soon, HPD will have its own crime-reporting website.  Here, citizens will be able to monitor the ongoing performance of the department.

Aside from the investment in equipment and data systems, one of the most obvious investments has been the creation of the Downtown Squad.  Sgt. Kevin Simmers and his corps of uniformed officers are stationed at the downtown substation in the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown building. They are a highly visible presence focused on the heart of downtown. They know and work closely with business owners to such an extent that they know the schedule of events probably better than anyone. The members of this squad have taken ownership of the issue of crime prevention in downtown. They have been known to respond to calls from business owners during off-duty hours. This squad has the flexibility to meet the needs of the business owners and patrons of downtown. 

However, the Downtown Squad is only part of the picture. During lunch hours, end of business days and around events, as many as seven uniformed officers can be seen policing the heart of downtown. Since alcohol consumption is often associated with violent crimes, better communication and cooperation between HPD and the Liquor Board has improved compliance with beverage laws.

Crime statistics show that over the last 10 years, criminal activity downtown has dropped markedly. And there is more to come. The city’s parking consultant, in a report to be issued in May, will offer specific recommendations about improvements to lighting and signage designed to make people feel safe and welcome. 

A new police auxiliary substation on Franklin Street will shortly put two auxiliary officers and a response vehicle on Franklin Street. More visibility of law enforcement will provide a greater sense of safety to residents, visitors and patrons. 

Next year, the new central library will open. And a proposal is circulating for a multipurpose entertainment and sports venue downtown. What impact might these additions have on policing in downtown?

Policing could become easier. As pedestrian activity increases, a phenomenon referred to as “natural surveillance” comes into play. Manageable-sized crowds tend to self-police. In other words, the more activity there is downtown, the safer it could become. 

Perhaps concerns about safety downtown are overstated. As the recovery of downtown begins, possibly as early as next year, the area might become safer.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.

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