Residents refer to it simply as "the incident." On a steamy August night four years ago, two groups of youths fired more than a dozen gunshots at each other at a swimming pool in Germantown's Cinnamon Woods community. Whether through providence or bad aim, no one was hit, and the only fatality was a Goodyear tire.
But the gunfire sounded a wake-up call for neighbors in the community of 684 town houses.
"People started coming to the Cinnamon Woods Homes Association board meetings and clamoring, 'What are you going to do about this?' And we said, 'What are we going to do about this?' " recalled board member Jim Pierce, who has lived in Cinnamon Woods for nine years.
Pierce and other residents reinvigorated weekly walks in which community members scout the neighborhood for vandalism, suspicious behavior and other safety concerns and then alert police to their findings. They also helped establish after-school programs that provide recreational activities and homework help. In another program, police officers hang out with teenagers, playing football and basketball.
In addition, last July, they helped to create a satellite police station adjacent to the development, raising funds and transforming a former video store on Clopper Road into a station for officers who patrol Cinnamon Woods and surrounding neighborhoods. Of the seven satellite police stations in Montgomery County, it is the only one that has been established by a community itself.
"You can't expect the police to come in and solve all your problems. You have to take the initiative and then work with police," said Gloria Carter, who has lived in Cinnamon Woods for 14 years and has spearheaded many of the projects that have forged a relationship with the police.
As a result, the number of crimes in Cinnamon Woods, which had risen steadily throughout the early 1990s, dropped 26 percent from 1996 to 1997, outpacing the county's decrease. Last year, the community's number of total crimes--332 were reported--held steady, but some crimes, such as vehicle theft and residential robbery, continued to drop.
Police have become such a part of the community that when Officer Robert Perkins walks through the neighborhood, children come running up to him yelling, "Officer Perkins, Officer Perkins," clamoring for him to toss a football or regale them with tales of police work.
"They get to see me in a different light, not as someone who just comes to lock people up," Perkins said of his visits to the 2,000-resident community.
Perkins patrols clusters of earth-tone town houses built in 1975 as Germantown's first town house community. The neighborhood encompasses a virtual spice rack of streets, with names such as Tarragon Court and Paprika Way. The community takes its name from Cinnamon Drive, which forms the backbone of the neighborhood.
Since it was built, Cinnamon Woods has changed from an entirely owner-occupied subdivision to one where about 40 percent of the houses are rented.
As ownership fell, some of the houses slipped into disrepair, according to Carter. Groups of teenagers began taking drugs in the tot lots, police said. Car after car would pull up to certain houses and leave a short time later, leading residents to suspect drugs were being sold there. Carter became afraid to walk down streets only a few blocks from her home.
After the shooting incident, Carter and Pierce tried to look beyond the negative aspects of the community to the positive ones.
"We very deliberately don't call our association the Cinnamon Woods Homeowners Association," Pierce said. "We don't care if you're an owner or renter, subsidized or not, just that you want to contribute something good to the community."
It is a self-managed community--where residents are recruited to work on a variety of committees, from architectural review to recreation--and voluntarism is ingrained in many of the members.
Thirteen residents have participated in the Citizen Academy, a 20-hour course sponsored by the police department that helps residents better understand the role of police in the community.
They also have beefed up their community watch program, with a group of residents, armed with cell phones programmed to dial 911 at the touch of a button, walking through the development once a week. They take a tape recorder to document what they find, from vacant houses to burned-out street lights to drug activity. At least one resident on each of the community's 17 streets has volunteered to vigilantly watch for and report to the residents association both nuisance complaints and potentially illegal activity.
But to be more effective, residents felt they needed to have a regular police presence in their neighborhood, and in 1996 they began working to create a satellite police station. They formed a group called the Seneca Cluster Community Partnership, among Germantown area homeowner and condominium associations and the police. The partnership persuaded the owners of a nearby strip shopping center to let them rent a vacant video store for a mere $10 a year.
Realizing renovation of the store and maintenance would take thousands more, they asked each Cinnamon Woods household to contribute $5. Undaunted when they found they still didn't have enough cash, they went to surrounding communities for donations and then asked police to apply for a $100,500 grant from the Maryland Hot Spots Communities, a state and federal program that targets high-crime areas. Downtown Silver Spring is the only other county recipient of this grant; 36 grants have been made in Maryland. Part of the grant has been used for after-school and other programs aimed at preventing crimes committed by youths.
With this money, and donated paint and carpet, the residents and police officers took on the renovation work themselves. Community members pay the $9,000 needed for utilities and upkeep for the station each year.
The police station maintains a database of offenders and has an anonymous tip line for residents to call in suspicious behavior.
"This station never would have happened without the community," Sgt. Christina Faass said. "And now we are part of the community. We know the good people in the neighborhoods and we know the problems. Residents can say so-and-so is acting up again, dealing drugs here, smoking marijuana there, and we know exactly who we're looking for."
That close relationship with residents also carries over into parole work. A community probation team meets with juvenile probation officers every two weeks so that police are kept up-to-date about who must keep a curfew or who is in home detention. Unlike in other communities, police officers often visit the homes of offenders to talk with parents.
In the first program of its kind in the country, police at the satellite center teach a problem-solving class to juveniles on probation. Modeled after a similar program for adults, the class meets for eight weeks and focuses on choices the teenagers can make and their consequences in an effort to have them defuse potentially volatile situations.
"When I go out and talk to other communities, they always want the police to come in and help them," Perkins said. "But that doesn't work. I tell them they need to help themselves first. I tell them about Cinnamon Woods."
CAPTION: Patroling the Cinnamon Woods community are, front from left, board member Jim Pierce, resident Gloria Carter and Terry Strauss of the Community Watch patrol, followed by Officer Robert Perkins and Sgt. Christina Faass. In back are Kathy Store and Charlie Fox, behind Store.