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Demands on Police, EMS Grow With Population

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page PW09

One night late last year, Prince William County police Officer Shawn Peak was patrolling the fast-growing Woodbridge area. He cruised past a neighborhood notorious for gang activity but found only some Mara Salvatrucha gang graffiti on a fence. He headed to the back lot of a shopping center where he saw some homeless people, checked their identification, and told them to move along.

Peak then drove into an area that concerned him more: a beautiful subdivision near Rippon Landing with new single-family houses and townhouses. The neighborhood, near the mobile homes and fast-food restaurants that dominate Route 1, is a testament to the new, upscale Prince William County.

Officer Ralph Daigneau demonstrates a program that analyzes video, part of police efforts to modernize to meet the needs of a growing community. (Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

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But Peak, 30, was concerned that the subdivision's single road leading in and out posed a public safety threat.

"We get a lot of speeding complaints here," he said. "There's only one way in here, so the [residents] want to get out before the traffic starts in the morning."

A night out on patrol in Prince William reflects the county's declining rate of serious crime and shows the need for authorities to keep tabs on the volume of new people, roads and houses. The impact of the new residents is felt at all levels of law enforcement: the police, the county jail, the county's fire and rescue services.

"It's a lot of pressure. We feel it," said Peak, an aspiring detective who has been in the department for about five years. "Crime is going down, but that doesn't slow our calls down."

According to the Prince William Police Department's 2003 crime statistics report, the most recent available, crime has dropped from a high of 28.7 crimes per 1,000 residents in 1999 to a low of 24.3 per 1,000 residents in 2003. The number of serious crimes -- such as murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, car theft and burglary -- has been dropping for the past three years but isn't as low as in 2000, according to the report.

Although the number of those crimes has been decreasing on average since 1999, the county's population has been increasing more than 10 times as fast. Prince William adds about 12,000 residents a year, government statistics show.

Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said it's too difficult to tell whether the population boom will add more criminals or law-abiding residents. Just the same, the department will "always put a premium on violent crimes as far as applying resources," he said.

The decline in violent crime is likely because of Prince William's minimal economic disparity, said Robert Kane, a professor of law and justice at American University.

"If the population is increasing you would expect crime to go up because there are more opportunities for criminals, more homes to burglarize, more people out to be victimized," Kane said. "You're seeing [in Prince William] a relatively homogenous population that moves in and they're not surrounded by a lot of disadvantage."

But that population demands services. The population growth has forced the Fire and Rescue Department to consider building more stations because of a steady rise in the number of requests for emergency life support. EMS calls increased to about 23,500 in 2004, from about 17,600 in 1999.

In the next several years, four new county fire and rescue stations are planned, including a 13,000-square-foot station opening this month at Linton Hall and Devlin roads, said Olufunke Olowabi, a county fire and rescue spokeswoman.

The Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center, which began getting crowded when Virginia abolished parole in the 1990s, is also feeling the impact of the county's growth and will soon undergo an expansion and renovation, officials said.

The crowding at the 740-bed jail became so intense this summer, when the crime rate is higher, that some of the jail's more well-behaved inmates were "farmed off" to other lockups throughout the state, said Maj. Charles "Skip" Land, the jail's superintendent. Frequently, the jail also becomes crowded because maximum security prisoners, such as gang members, get assigned a two-bed cell to themselves.

When the jail has too many inmates, it becomes difficult to maintain security, and many of the drug counseling and educational classes have to be temporarily stopped until the inmate population drops to a manageable size.

By June 2007, a new 200-bed expansion will be added and in 2009, another 200-bed addition could be built, Land said.

One area where friction emerges between the county's public safety efforts and its fast-growing population is the commuter parking lot at the Prince William Parkway and Interstate 95. It is a prized asset for the workforce of Prince William and surrounding counties, who park their cars there in the mornings and carpool to Washington and the inner suburbs for work.

Peak said the problem is that the large lot, which has direct access to the I-95 high-occupancy vehicle lanes, is so popular that some commuters park any which way they can -- even illegally. Consequently, police sometimes have to conduct sweeps and issue tickets en masse.

"You have to ticket them when there's signs up" saying no parking, Peak said. "Plus, if a drunk comes down the road, he'll hit all of them."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company