Prince George's, Md., Police Unit Nurtures Ties Between Officers, Community

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

Prince George's Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton knew he had to rebuild his department's relationship with the community. He also knew he needed eyes and ears in the county's neighborhoods and officers to develop sources within the county's criminal element.

In short, he was looking for a group of officers to become the department's ambassadors to Prince George's County.

So Hylton grabbed 65 beat officers and created the Community Response Team.

Already, the chief says, the unit is paying off. The team has helped solve at least two homicide cases. And Hylton credits its members with helping keep crime down this year for a fourth year in a row.

"This is a way to let people know that police officers are human," said Hylton, who took over the department in September. "The trust is being built. People are actually providing information to the police."

And in big cases, too.

Henry Colon, a Community Response officer, has vivid memories of a day in May. He was riding around a Lanham area apartment complex on his beat, he said, when he noticed a man who had been warned against trespassing there. Enough was enough, he recalled thinking. He stopped the man and told him that he was under arrest -- unless he could help with a bigger crime.

"I says, 'Let's play a game,' " Colon said, recalling the encounter as he drove past the spot where it happened. "If you give me something good that's going to help our community, then I'm going to let you walk."

At first, the man seemed to be spouting gibberish. Something about a homicide in 2005, when Colon was a rookie on the force. Colon didn't believe him. Then, Colon said, the man "became like a different person." In great detail, he began to describe a killing.

On June 25, police arrested Kevin R. Price, 23, and charged him with second-degree murder in the 2005 slaying of Chester Slaughter, 17. The arrest, based largely on what Colon learned from his informant, was a major coup for the Community Response Team and a testament to the value of the old-school idea of having one officer responsible for one small beat, Hylton said. Before Hylton beefed up the Community Response Team in the fall, multiple officers were jointly responsible for bigger geographic areas.

Community policing is not a new concept, nor is it glamorous work. Colon's big successes -- aside from the Price arrest -- include scaring a group of troubled youths away from a community pool. His colleague in Langley Park, Officer Juan Damian, is well known for helping start an Alcoholics Anonymous program and working with a bank to help immigrants open checking accounts so they have somewhere to put their cash and are less likely to be robbed.

Damian spends his mornings canvassing the spots where immigrant day laborers hang out, then he moves on to the hundreds of businesses on his beat. Most of the owners know his name and have his cellphone number. When he walks into a store, he greets the employees as if he has known them for years.

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