It was a horrific crime that would have tested the mettle of any police commander: the Oct. 15, 1998, armed robbery and slayings of two Indian immigrants who were working the overnight shift at a popular Dunkin' Donuts store in Camp Springs.
But for Maj. Gerald M. Wilson, the youthful commander in charge of the police district where the killings occurred, the Dunkin' Donuts case represented an especially tall order. Could he ease residents' fears that crime in their community was spiraling out of control? Could he convince other store owners that it was safe to do business in the neighborhood?
Wilson, now 36, had been appointed to the top job in District 4 just eight months before. The Glenarden native had risen quickly through the ranks of the Prince George's Police Department, where he has spent his entire career. People were watching.
"When I looked at my pager, I thought, 'This can't be real,' " Wilson recalled of the slayings. "What worse could happen? People were thinking, 'I can't go out of my house--look what happened.' But what we had to do was say, 'No, come out. You have to.' We had to make sure that people felt safe enough to do that for the community's sake."
Within days, three people were arrested and charged with murder in the slayings. But the Dunkin' Donuts near Allentown Road and Branch Avenue remained shuttered for eight months, one more empty storefront in a decaying commercial strip.
After a vigorous lobbying effort by Wilson and other community leaders, however, the owner of the doughnut shop, Jay Patel, agreed to reopen in the same spot. On June 19, the Dunkin' Donuts resumed serving pastries and hot coffee in a grand celebration that featured balloons and ribbons, a prayer vigil by ministers, and free food and drink courtesy of the Prince George's Economic Development Corp. and Wilson's Community/Police Partnership of District 4.
"I think it sent a message to those that would commit robberies in our district that the community and merchants stand together," Wilson said. "We as a community came back in the face of adversity."
Wilson said the Dunkin' Donuts comeback is an example of the community-policing philosophy that he had tried to install in District 4, which covers Temple Hills, Suitland, Oxon Hill, Camp Springs and Fort Washington. He's pursued ties with local business owners, forged partnerships with apartment-complex managers and held regular town meetings in an attempt to get residents to cooperate with police.
The model is working, he said, pointing to recent crime statistics. Robberies in District 4 declined by 33 percent--from 535 to 357--during the first nine months of 1999, compared with the same period last year. Armed robberies of businesses are down by 44 percent during the same time, from 120 to 67, police figures show.
Wilson, who grew up in Glenarden and Landover as the youngest of five children, graduated from DuVal High School in 1981 and attended Prince George's Community College before enrolling in the Prince George's police academy. This month, he completed his last class for a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Maryland.
When he was growing up, Wilson's older brothers warned him to watch out for the cops, telling him that they weren't to be trusted.
"Put it this way: None of the stories they told were positive," he said. "That's just the way it was. You didn't want to get caught by [the Prince George's police]. But our people want to break out of the old mold. We've gotten a big eraser out and we're trying to redefine who we are and what we stand for."
CAPTION: Maj. Gerald M. Wilson, Oxon Hill district commander for the Prince George's County police department, is a leader in the department's move toward community policing.