Hyattsville Police Chief Douglas Holland almost dropped his morning cup of tea last week when he spotted a newspaper article about a double homicide in his tiny Prince George's County city.
Then he looked more closely. It turned out that the horrific crime was in the 5100 block of Quincy Street -- just outside the city limits.
"It's not fair when the county police and the media say a crime like that is in Hyattsville," Holland said. "It gives an unfair impression that we're a violent city."
As Prince George's grapples with a soaring crime rate, the hodgepodge of 27 jurisdictions that dot the county are increasingly sensitive about the stigma of homicides or carjackings that occur just outside their borders. They have repeatedly registered complaints with the media and the county police department when crime is inaccurately attributed to their city or town.
To address the growing discontent and avoid the possibility of getting it wrong, the county police have decided that their news releases will no longer identify the cities and towns where crimes occur. From now on, the department will release only street names and block numbers.
"There is way too much confusion about where exactly things are," said Barbara Hamm, director of the department's office of communications. "The onus will now be on the media to decide where they want to say [a crime] happened."
The decision did not go over well with some media organizations, which complain that Prince George's police are already too tight-lipped with information.
"It almost seems to me like they are saying, 'We're just going to have to throw our hands up and let the media figure it out,' " said Jamie Foster, news director for WJLA-TV (Channel 7). "I don't think that is the best way of dealing with this situation."
The confusion over locations in Prince George's stems from the police department's use of Zip codes to define where a crime occurs.
The 2.5-square-mile city of Hyattsville, for example, claims about 17,000 residents. But according to the U.S. Postal Service Zip codes, Hyattsville is a sprawling area of more than 150,000 people.
Eugene W. Grant, mayor of the 4,885-person city of Seat Pleasant, said the county police department's mistakes make it appear that crime has gone up in his jurisdiction when it actually has declined. That lowers property values, frightens residents and chips away at community pride, he said.
"To say that a crime was committed in Seat Pleasant when it occurred somewhere else is a crime within itself," Grant said. "It slanders our good name as a city of excellence."
Capitol Heights Mayor Joyce Ayers Nixon said it is exasperating to see her 4,139-resident town depicted as crime-ridden because of police errors.
"We get the blame for everything," she said. "It hurts, because people get the impression that Capitol Heights is a bad place to live."
Some Prince George's residents have tried lobbying the Postal Service to align Zip codes with jurisdictional boundaries. A group called Organization for the City of Hyattsville's Identity (ORCHID) has pushed for the city to have its own Zip code.
Deborah Yackley, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said such a change is unlikely. She said that Zip codes for almost every U.S. city extend outside the jurisdiction's official boundaries and that it would be too expensive to change them all.
"We have Zip codes for the efficiency of mail delivery and for no other purpose," she said. "We can't switch around Zip codes just because someone asks us to."
So for now, it seems, reporters and editors will have to make their own decisions about identifying crime locations in Prince George's. On some nights, Foster predicted, the four major local television newscasts could place the same crime in four locations.
Holland said it shouldn't be that hard for reporters and editors to determine where a crime occurred. When asked to describe the location of last weekend's double homicide, he said the answer was simple.
"It appears to me that it occurred somewhere in unincorporated Prince George's County between Bladensburg and Cheverly," he said. "Why can't you just say that?"
Douglas Holland of Hyattsville.