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The Complexities Of a Pr. George's Crime Incubator

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page B01

The Glenarden Apartments I and II are on a list of 22 housing complexes that Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has targeted as crime "hot spots." At a news conference Monday, he said owners of the complexes have allowed their properties to become "breeding grounds for criminal activity," and he vowed to put them out of business if the problems persist.

"They have a responsibility to ensure that people live in safe environments and not let three or four or five groups of people live in a single unit," Johnson said of the owners. "They know the units with people with lots of issues, and they have a responsibility to evict them."

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The owners argue that public safety is the responsibility of the police, and they have called on Johnson to hire more officers and to increase patrols in high-crime areas.

Both sides make some good points -- even as they appear to miss the essential one: Only by cooperating with each other do they stand a chance of getting tenants to cooperate with them.

A maintenance man at one of the Glenarden complexes told me: "It's not that we don't try to keep it clean around here. It's just that as soon as we do, the kids dirty it up again -- throwing paper on the ground, peeing in the halls."

He was standing near a sign, posted by the management, warning parents that they would be held responsible for thefts, vandalism and other crimes committed by their children. It also was a sign that Johnson and the owners have more in common than they might realize.

An armed security guard on the premises told me: "These kids have no respect for their own parents, let alone other adults. They do as they please and dare you to say anything."

Crime statistics indicate that there is some truth to that. Last year, the Glenarden Apartments -- adjoining complexes with 340 units each -- generated 1,269 calls to the county police. Police report that 37 were for car thefts, mostly committed by teenagers and young adults, and 109 were for disorderly conduct, mostly involving youths. There were 13 shootings, 41 assaults, four robberies and 25 burglaries. Tenants made 19 calls related to drug trafficking and 145 for domestic disputes, some involving parents and their out-of-control teenagers.

And yet, blaming the kids gets us nowhere. Better to find out more about what's happening, or not happening, in the lives of the youngsters. One teen talked about the local enthusiasm for football, another about tensions with youths from other neighborhoods.

"Everybody in here loves football, and we want to be a real team," said Michael Eason, 14. "We made up a team [the name: Most Wanted], and we go around to different neighborhoods to play."

But, as Antwaun Williams, 15, put it, "Sometimes other people come to our neighborhood and try to take over, and we end up beefing."

The desire to be a part of "a real team," not some gang, echoed again and again -- no doubt in part because of where the apartment complex is located: within sight of FedEx Field in Landover, home to the Washington Redskins.

"We can hear the fans," said Malik Robertson, 13. Asked if he had ever been to a game, he said no. Asked if he wanted to go, he said, "Yeah, but I don't know how to get in."

On a nearby basketball court, youngsters were shivering and rubbing their hands together between shots.

"We need a place to play indoors," said Michael Johnson, 14. "We have a community center, but the adults use it for meetings and for church."

A girl who appeared to be about 7 was standing off to the side, holding a worn-out basketball. "We need a place for the little kids to play," she said. "The big kids always run us off the court."

Pointing to a rendering of Bart Simpson spray-painted on the court, she added, "And we need to get rid of nasty stuff like this."

The complex has a large swimming pool and a smaller splash pool. But the water was dirty and littered with trash. There was a swing set, but the swings were missing.

I asked why someone would do such things, and someone in the crowd said: "Who cares?"

Good question.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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