Emma Hawes remembers that night a year ago.
A man was pistol-whipped at the gas station behind her house, and the assailant ran through her neighborhood firing his gun. The shots were loud. Fearing that the bullets would come flying into their homes, Hawes and some of her neighbors hit the floor.
The incident was unusual for Hawes's quiet subdivision of mostly $400,000 homes, between Church and Annapolis roads.
"They got away," Hawes said of whoever was involved in the beating and gun-firing. "It was unnerving."
Despite that scare, Hawes said she generally feels safe in her neighborhood of neat colonials and spacious yards.
But she also plans to vote yes on a question that will appear on Tuesday's ballot: "Should the City of Bowie establish a local police department with a net approximate annual cost of $46 per $100,000 assessed home value?''
Proponents and opponents have been voicing their positions for months, and with the election just days away, both sides are stepping up their campaigns. If the measure passes, the number of patrol officers in the city would nearly double.
"Bowie is a nice place to live, but I think the criminals know we don't have a police force," Hawes said. "If we had our own, there would be more of a police presence."
Others, such as longtime resident Al J. Golato, disagree.
"We should pressure the county to give us adequate police coverage," said Golato, 82, who helped write the city's charter in the 1960s. "If not, it sets a precedent that whenever we feel the county does not give us enough, we will do it ourselves."
Bowie, the largest city in the county, with a population of 54,884, is not unique in its attempt to establish its own crime-fighting force. About two dozen incorporated cities and towns in Prince George's already operate their own departments, including Greenbelt, Laurel, Hyattsville, Fairmount Heights and Cottage City. Some of those departments function with just a handful of officers.
Supporters of a Bowie police force say they often feel as though they are overlooked by the county police department, which deploys the bulk of its officers to high-crime areas, including several inside the Beltway.
In addition to the effort in Bowie, there is a movement in College Park to create a police department. The city of New Carrollton, with a population of more than 13,000, voted in May to establish an independent force with a chief and two police officers.
"The citizens felt a city police force would be more responsive to their needs," said New Carrollton City Administrator J. Michael Downes. "There was a gradual dissatisfaction with the county police."
A Growing City
As Bowie's population and economic base have grown, so too has its need for more protection. City officials say that for years they have asked county police to provide the city with more patrols, but the increases have been modest -- about one officer or two per shift. Meanwhile, residents complain about slow response times when they call for help and say they lack a police presence on their streets.
"Times are different. We have a larger city with more traffic, more crime, larger homes and greater targets," said Len Lucchi, chairman of Citizens for Bowie Police. "We're becoming more of a downtown city. This is a great place for families. We want to keep it that way."
Opponents of a separate Bowie police force agree that the city has grown and therefore needs more protection. But they disagree with supporters of the ballot question. For instance, opponents argue that the estimated cost to establish a local police department -- about $7 million -- might be too low. The city says it would cost about $7.5 million annually to operate the force. If the public votes to create the department, opponents say, homeowners would be stuck with the bill, even if it far exceeds expectations.
In addition, some opponents say they do not want the liability exposure that comes with operating a police force. If the force were to be sued, the city would have to pay the settlement costs, opponents contend.
Golato agreed that the city needs more police, but he said there are other ways to increase safety. He pointed out that Bowie currently pays the county Police Department about $600,000 a year for six officers who are charged with patrolling the city. Those officers generally focus on issues like traffic enforcement. Golato said Bowie should hire more county officers rather than start its own police "bureaucracy."
Few Violent Crimes
Bowie generally does not experience the crime levels found in other parts of the county. Homicides and other violent crimes are infrequent in Bowie compared with the county as a whole, which this year had recorded 145 killings as of Tuesday.
A city of 16 square miles, Bowie averages one slaying every other year, though there have been two so far this year.
One victim was Stacey Seaton, a 17-year-old who was shot in the head in June on a winding path in Bowie Forest park about 200 yards from her home. The second was Michael Snoots Sr., who was shot and killed by his son last month after the elder Snoots fired first at his son and daughter-in-law. The younger Snoots and his wife survived the attack at their home on Chestnut Avenue, near the city's historic district.
The most common crimes in Bowie are car thefts, robberies and burglaries, according to Mayor G. Frederick Robinson, who endorses the plan for a police department.
"As the city has grown, we've begun to realize this is a logical extension of the city expanding," said Robinson, a retired county police major who is unopposed in his bid for reelection. "This is the time to do this."
According to data from the city, police response time is slower in Bowie than in county jurisdictions that have their own police departments. For emergency calls, it takes Prince George's police an average of 11 minutes to arrive at a call, compared with city force response times of two to three minutes in Laurel, two minutes in Hyattsville and three to five minutes in Greenbelt.
The city conducted a survey late last year and found that four out of five residents feel safe in their homes during the day and that about 40 percent of people are satisfied with current police protection. In addition, half of those surveyed feel safe in retail areas during the day, but only 18 percent said they feel safe in those areas at night.
Prince George's police have responded positively to the idea of Bowie forming its own force.
"We welcome the opportunity to work with any police force within the county," said Barbara Hamm, a county police spokeswoman. "There is strength in numbers. The goal is to keep the county safe."
Under the plan to establish a department, the average homeowner would pay an extra $125 in taxes, Lucchi said.
The department would have 57 members, 35 of whom would be on patrol, compared with the 19 county officers who currently patrol the city. It would take about four years to fully staff the department. In the meantime, the county would continue to provide some services.
A ballot question similar to the one to be decided Tuesday failed in 1996, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to create a city police force. At the time, Golato submitted a report to the council opposing the plan.
Robinson, the mayor, said the matter is up to Bowie residents.
"If they tell me no, the words "Bowie Police Department" won't cross my lips again," he said. "If they tell me yes, we'll start working the day after the election to get it started."