The Prince George's County border community of Glassmanor was once compared to Beirut by one of its most prominent residents.
Gunfire resounded regularly. Mothers were afraid to let their children play outside. Playgrounds were ruled by cocky young men with semiautomatics in their waistbands and crack cocaine in their pockets. Pedestrians were prey for armed robbers. Police responded to anonymous calls for help from residents too afraid to be seen talking to them.
Then, about three years ago, Prince George's County police established a community policing program there. Recently, police and residents say, they believe there are clear signs that change is occurring in the neighborhood.
Although the community was once one of the county's most crime-plagued areas, a place designated a "hotspot" by the governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, today many in the community believe Glassmanor is a different place.
Police say it has become an example of how significantly a neighborhood can turn around if residents and police unite against troublemakers. Abandoned dwellings, used as stash pads by drug dealers and crash pads for users, have been nailed up. Junk cars, which served as an eyesore and were a hazard to children, have been towed away. Loiterers were shooed away by police. Open-air drug dealers were forced inside, authorities said.
Now, children and law abiding adults feel safe to come back outside.
"What happened in Glassmanor shows how much police and citizens can do and that people can work to control their environment, to make it better," said Maj. Gerald Wilson, commander of the Prince George's County Police Department District 4 station in Oxon Hill. "It had problems with crime. We went in and worked with the citizens, and they turned it around. The citizens and the business owners."
Glassmanor, inside an area surrounded by Southern Avenue on the northwest, Wheeler Road on the northeast, St. Barnabas Road on the east, Oxon Hill Road on the south and Livingston Road on the southwest, was second only to Suitland among Prince George's communities in the 1990 census in the number of families living below the poverty level. Most of the community's residents live in apartments, officials said.
Police say the crimes most likely to be affected by community policing programs are aggravated assault, robbery and car-jacking--and they have some data that show their efforts in Glassmanor may be making a dent.
In Glassmanor, during the first two months of 1999, there were three armed robberies; in the same period in 1998, there were six armed robberies. The story is similar for strong-arm robberies, which involve the threat of violence. During the first two months of 1999, there were no strong-arm robberies in Glassmanor; in the same period in 1998, there were two. Carjackings also are down; there was one in the first two months of 1998, and none this year. Aggravated assaults also showed a reduction--there were six in the first two months of 1998 and three in the first two months of 1999.
Police say this shows that violent crimes decreased 46.2 percent in the first two months of 1999, when compared with 1998; in all of District 4, in the same period, violent crimes dropped 26.6 percent.
Police credit apartment managers with helping to revive the area by pumping thousands of dollars into renovating and beautifying complexes. Edgewood Management, which manages 13 apartment complexes in Prince George's County, has established a day camp, a computer lab, sports activities and mentoring programs for children at their buildings in Glassmanor, Riverview Terrace and Colonial Village.
The company has applied for a $250,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement additional programs. The company hopes to establish a day-care center, said Kathy Dougherty, director of community services for Edgewood.
Southern Management, owner of Oxon Hill Village and Southview Apartments, purchased a bus to take children and adults in its complexes on recreational outings, established a tutorial program and plans to provide computers to some new residents with children, employees there said.
"We had noticed that in some of the complexes, there were all these children sitting around during the summers and after school with absolutely nothing to do," Dougherty said. "What we are doing is providing them with something positive to do. The younger children in the camp get to be involved with activities like arts and crafts, swim and go on outings and the older children, who serve as camp counselors, get a chance to test their leadership skills. For some, this is the first time they've been put in a position of responsibility."
On a recent morning, three 9-year-old girls constructed necklaces and bracelets from colorful beads as a 13-year-old boy waxed philosophical about his job as a camp counselor.
"It keeps me out of trouble," said the Oxon Hill Middle School eighth-grader. "I watch out for the kids and keep them out of trouble and make sure they have fun. That gives me something to do."
In another program, three teenage siblings tried their hands at games in the computer lab.
"I learned how to type using a program here," said the 16-year-old girl, shaking shiny black curls from her forehead as she focused on a game of Tetris. She said she is an honor student at Oxon Hill High School who has already decided on a career in nursing and enjoys reading Greek mythology.
"I want to help people," she said. "Nursing would be a good way to do that."
Jo Ann Bell, coordinator for the Hotspots Initiative in Prince George's County, said Glassmanor qualified for the program because it had a high concentration of crime, a large number of latchkey children, many residents on parole and probation and was home to a community policing program.
She said her program worked with police to link residents to resources in health, recreation, counseling and financial aid. For example, she said, Glassmanor once had a significant problem with pit bulls, which were used for security and intimidation by drug dealers. Residents complained to the community police officers. They notified Bell. She linked animal control authorities with residents and eventually animal control teamed with the community officers to pick up the illegal dogs.
The Hotspots program funds overtime pay for community police officers and, in turn, officers work with the organization to provide information about residents and their needs, she said.
"The initiative goes to the community and says you have standards that you know you would like in this community. You tell us what you think needs to happen before you can have that quality of life," she said. "The initiative pays for overtime for community police to have an outreach office there. The job of the community police officers is to be intimately involved in that community--to get to know all the folks, the business people, the kids and whoever is in that community on a daily basis," she said. "They become a resource for us. . . . What is hoped is that the community builds a team and a camaraderie of working together."