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

By definition, fences serve as protection. But it is unusual to see such publicly funded displays in Prince George's County. When completed, they will connect to two other fences built by residents, one made of wood and the other chain-link.

James Robinson, 81, owns one of the existing fences. His house faces Southern Avenue, and he said he has seen a lot of changes, many of them bad, in the border community over the 35 years he has lived there.

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)

"There is a lot of activity on the path," he said. "It would be better to put up a fence. I hope it happens."

In many ways, Southern Avenue defines Capitol Heights, home to 4,100 people. Southern Avenue, along with Eastern Avenue, located a few blocks away, has long been the site of a frustrating game of jurisdictional ping-pong for authorities. When D.C. officers patrol their side of the line, drug dealers and prostitutes often cross over to Maryland. When Prince George's officers arrive, the offenders jump back to the District. Unless officers see a felony in progress, they are generally barred from crossing the line.

"Living here on the border, we see what happens," Robinson said. "The footpath gives criminals another easy way to jump back and forth. I think the fences might stop some of that."

A crime-fighting strategy announced at a public ceremony in October would ease some of the frustration shared by officers on both sides. Signed by officials from the District and Prince George's, the agreement includes the deputizing of 16 police officers -- eight from each jurisdiction -- so they can cross the city-county border to make arrests. The program, first employed in the early 1990s, has not been inaugurated, even though officials said at the time that it would begin three weeks later.

Capitol Heights will benefit from the city-county border patrols, said the town's mayor, Joyce Nixon. Meanwhile, the town's police department participates in its own cross-jurisdictional patrols with Fairmount Heights and Seat Pleasant, two crime-troubled municipalities that share with the District the boundary streets of Eastern and Southern avenues.

But the town cannot rely on patrols alone, Nixon said. The building of the two fences, she said, illustrate most clearly the town's intention to "proactively police" itself.

"It's a quality of life issue," said Nixon, 63, a petite woman with a thatch of closely cropped gray hair.

Nixon, a Capitol Heights resident for 30 years and midway into her four-year term as mayor, visited the footpath one recent morning. She said drugs and crime have delayed the town's growth, but she envisions a place where people will someday shop and eat. She said the town that markets itself to drivers as the "Gateway to the Capitol," as boasted on big blue signs positioned at its geographical borders, has great potential.

"I see this as working out well," she said of the fences. "It is something that will help with the bigger picture and it will help deter the bigger crimes. Everyone just wants to feel safe."

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