First, there were the petty annoyances: a little graffiti, litter and loitering. Then police would make a drug bust, or someone would get mugged. And soon Howard County residents were staying away from two of Columbia's more troubled village centers.
But then a few years ago, thanks to a state grant, a couple of police substations opened in storefronts, patrols increased and citizens pitched in with patrols of their own. Within months, the centers' blight was reversed, and the crime virtually evaporated.
That's how the so-called HotSpots program was supposed to work. Communities would identify a problem area and then throw every resource at it. That meant police increasing their presence and prosecutors cracking down on even the smallest crimes, but also citizen groups throwing community parties and picking up trash. In some areas, even the dogcatchers were making special efforts.
In the seven years since then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) made the $32 million HotSpots program one of her signature initiatives, she touted it as the catalyst that revived 62 communities across the state. And a study of the initiative issued last September by criminologists at the University of Pennsylvania found evidence of real success. For example, violent crime in HotSpot areas dropped 8.8 percent from 1996 to 2000.
"They've been very successful," said George Ludington, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. "You might have after-school programs, trash pickups, whatever the community needs."
But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who was sworn in yesterday, repeatedly derided the program during his campaign for office as ineffective and costly. Critics, including police and academics, have said it simply squeezed crime out of one neighborhood and into another. Baltimore's former police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, whom Ehrlich just tapped to lead the state police force, called HotSpots a "failed policy of the past." Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley also has disparaged the program, and the city has already made plans to reassign 25 officers who had participated.
Officially, Ehrlich won't say what the fate of the program will be.
"It would be inappropriate to comment on any specific program prior to the governor submitting his budget proposal to the legislature," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.
But as the state faces a $1.2 billion deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1, community leaders from La Plata to Rockville think the HotSpots program is as good as dead.
"Every administration has its hallmark programs, and you can be sure that Mr. Ehrlich will have his as well," said Kristen Mahoney, director of grants and governmental relations for the Baltimore Police Department. "It's a pretty good bet it's not going to be HotSpots."
Officials are beginning to come up with contingency plans for the program's possible termination June 30 -- the end of the fiscal year.
Howard County Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay has vowed to keep the program alive one way or another.
"I am not going to close those satellite offices down," he said.
Although he's not sure where the money is going to come from to keep them open, he said both HotSpots offices -- in the Harper's Choice and Long Reach shopping centers -- were so successful that the county opened a third on its own in North Laurel almost two years ago without state money.
"And if I can find the right place, I want to do one in Oakland Mills," he said, referring to another Columbia village.
Charles County had also been planning to open another HotSpots facility in addition to the ones in Westlake and Smallwood Village. It was to be located in a neighborhood called the Meadows, where residents had been complaining of drugs and noise. But now county officials aren't confident it will happen.
"We're looking at over a billion-dollar deficit," said Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R). "So it's completely understandable that some tough decisions are going to be made."
Anne Arundel County, which has four HotSpots offices, also is scrambling to keep them open.
"We're reviewing the possibility of funding those from other types of grants," said Anne Arundel Police Sgt. Jeff Noseworthy. "I'm sure there are others out there. I can't see us pulling all the officers out of the area, simply because of the impact the program has had."
The program helped coordinate the efforts of various agencies that previously hadn't always worked together, he said. Specifically, housing inspectors teamed up with police officers to crack down on a slumlord that residents had long been complaining about.
The program also helped coordinate a Halloween party last year, at which residents handed out candy to disadvantaged youths.
"It would be a shame to see that go away," Noseworthy said.
Still, he sees no reason the community groups now formed can't still meet. And the disparate agencies that started working together under HotSpots can continue to do so, whether HotSpots exists or not, he said.
That's what Officer Derek Baliles said would happen in Montgomery County. Police would continue to patrol areas of high crime identified under the program. But David Weaver, the county government's spokesman, said some of the program's other aspects, such as after-school programs and trash pickups, may suffer.
"If the state cuts off funding, it's going to be very difficult to sustain the program," Weaver said. "And I think the reality is it's going to be tough in most communities. Without question, this is our toughest budget year in eight years. We're already facing a [county] budget gap of approximately $300 million, and that assumes no cuts in state aid."
In Prince George's, county spokesman Jim Keary said "there is no additional money in the police budget" to continue HotSpots. But new County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) "is a major supporter of community-based programs," Keary said, and if funding is cut he would look to keep the programs going with federal grants.
Still, Keary noted, "it's all conjecture" until the governor unveils his budget plan.