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Criminals to Face New Hurdle On D.C.-Prince George's Line

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page A01

The fences will be chain-link and six feet tall, topped with small spikes to deter those who might scale them.

They will serve as physical barriers and public reminders: Once the 32-foot-long fences go up this month, connecting to two existing fences, anyone who wants to walk from the District into the small Prince George's County community of Capitol Heights no longer will be able to do so on a rugged footpath that has become a corridor for drug dealing, police say.

Capitol Heights Mayor Joyce Nixon and Deputy Police Chief James Jenkins walk the footpath where a six-foot-high fence will be built. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

For years, the footpath, which snakes between two brick houses and is partially obscured by tall oak trees, has been a shortcut into the narrow neighborhood streets of Capitol Heights. Without it, people on foot would have to walk several city blocks that are well lighted and regularly patrolled by police.

"The path has been a nuisance," said Anthony Best, public works director for Capitol Heights. "It has done nothing but worry those who live closest to it."

The daily drug activity, residents and police say, has transformed the footpath: Once it was convenient, the quickest route to and from the District. But now it is too dangerous, they say, even in daylight.

The $5,000 fences -- approved by the town's six-member council in response to a petition signed by several residents -- will create a new boundary more visible than public streets between the square-mile town and the District. It is especially notable because Capitol Heights, like the many communities sprinkled along the city-county border, has experienced an upswing in violent crime, including two homicides within eyeshot of the footpath.

Since January 2003, according to Prince George's police statistics, county and town officers have responded 70 times to the footpath area, mostly for reports of drug sales and suspicious-looking people. Many times the calls ended without a report being filed, an indication that the officer arrived at the scene and found no signs that a crime was in progress, the statistics show.

"They usually outrun the officers or they hide," said Sgt. Robert Middleton of the four-member Capitol Heights Police Department. "It frustrates us, too."

It occurs the same way every day, Middleton said, standing on the footpath one recent cold morning. He pointed to the debris -- empty bottles of Richards Wild Irish Rose white wine, crushed 24-ounce cans of Budweiser and Steel Reserve, and folded bottle caps used to cook heroin. A blue lighter and empty $10 bags of heroin also had been tossed nearby.

The trash formed a careless trail toward Southern Avenue, a busy four-lane road that forms the dividing line between Prince George's County and the District.

"The drug users walk through here to get their buys and they stay for a while, sometimes all night," Middleton said.

"Then they cut back through to go home, whether D.C. or somewhere around here," Cpl. Darrel Piper of the Capitol Heights police added.

The sale and use of drugs, along with other violence, probably won't cease with the building of the fences, the officers said, but the foot traffic will be forced onto the main roads, where they said police are able to keep better watch. "We hope it deters the crime in some way," Piper said.

Robin Hoey, a D.C. police commander who oversees the neighborhoods near Capitol Heights, said the crime problem flows in both directions. "The criminals jump over back and forth, from D.C. into the county and vice versa," Hoey said, adding that he believes the fences will have limited impact compared with more officers in the area.

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