Pr. George’s official set to announce historic drop in homicides
By Matt Zapotosky,
Officials will announce Wednesday that homicides in Prince George’s County have fallen to levels not seen since the mid-1980s, an accomplishment they say illustrates that County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s signature initiative is working.
Although violence has fallen across the country, Prince George’s officials nevertheless say the 60 killings recorded so far this year — coming with a drop in overall crime — provide an early statistical testament that Baker, who was elected in 2010, is transforming a county at times defined by crime.
Baker’s efforts, they say, are making safer the six troubled neighborhoods he decided to target in April and should soon improve life in the county in broader ways.
“This is not an aberration,” Baker said in an interview Tuesday. “This is not a fad.”
Baker’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative identified six of the most troublesome areas in Prince George’s and assigned teams of government officials to manage each.
Officials said that they are still collecting and analyzing non-crime data to help evaluate the program but that they believe the crime numbers bespeak early success. Homicides are down more than 35 percent from the same point last year.
“It’s bringing hope to people and places that haven’t had hope in a long time,” said Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw. “We’re no longer the point of least resistance in the Metropolitan Washington area.”
The framework of Baker’s initiative seems like common sense: Redirect resources to the areas most in need, and coordinate government agencies to fix problems. In Prince George’s, however, leaders historically found problems with those tactics.
Identifying neighborhoods as “hot spots” was sometimes controversial because officials “worried about offending the people that lived there,” said Prince George’s Assistant Police Chief Kevin Davis.
And officials had to sell the plan to residents in other county neighborhoods, who might worry that resources would be taken away from them, Davis said.
To those in the areas that Baker did select for more attention — Langley Park, Kentland-Palmer Park, Hillcrest Heights-Marlow Heights, Glassmanor, East Riverdale-Bladensburg and Suitland-Coral Hills — officials pitched the idea as an effort to make up for past failures.
Administration officials admitted to residents in those communities that “we should have been there before,” said Bradford Seamon, Baker’s chief administrative officer.
Elsewhere, they argued that success would improve the county’s reputation as a whole: If crime fell in the most-beleaguered areas, they said, it would fall countywide. And if home values rose in troubled areas, officials suggested, that would generate more tax revenue that could be spent elsewhere.
“A rising tide lifts all ships,” Seamon said. “I think that we hit that concept early and often, and I think people bought into it.”
To help coordinate the efforts, Baker assigned cabinet members to oversee improvements in each neighborhood. Officials said that forced both cooperation and action.
An area cited by county leaders as an example of the progress was Forest Terrace, in Kentland-Palmer Park. In one modest triplex, each time the windows were boarded up, squatters would tear the barriers down as they transformed the area into an open-air drug market. At night, residents recalled, the scent of marijuana permeated the air as young men exchanged cash in one spot, drugs in another.
N.D. MacMurray complained about the neighboring house for years, keeping detailed records of the dozens of phone calls and faxes she exchanged with county officials. Nothing changed until a late spring community meeting, when she met Carla Reid, Baker’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and public infrastructure, who had been given responsibility for Kentland-Palmer Park. The women soon began exchanging e-mails about the troubled home.
Today, MacMurray and county officials say, a family is renting the home and the drug activity seems to have vanished.
“They went and followed up and made sure it was taken care of until I said it was done,” MacMurray said.
County officials tout similar gains elsewhere. On Nova Avenue in Capitol Heights, officials said, apartments that had become a spot for vagrants and drug dealers were demolished. On Riggs Road in Langley Park, authorities shut down what appeared to be an illegal cockfighting operation, seizing 22 roosters from a home and tearing down structures in the back yard that seemed to be used for cockfighting and other activities.
The last time the county had fewer than 70 homicides was in 1986, when it recorded 55, according to police data. At this time last year, the county had recorded 93, not including a case investigated by Maryland State Police and another investigated by Laurel City Police.
Other crime is down, too. Through Monday, overall crime was down 7.1 percent compared with the same time period last year, with a 7.6 percent drop in violent crime and a 7.1 percent drop in property crime, according to police statistics.
Seamon, the chief administrative officer, said crime in the six key areas is down even more. He said he hopes other positive indicators, such as reduced foreclosures, will follow.
Some remain skeptical of progress. Pam Avery, 51, a budget analyst for the Army and a resident of Forest Terrace, said troubled youths still sell drugs outside her homes and others. She said crime had “gotten better,” but she said that she is still embarrassed to bring co-workers to her neighborhood for parties and that she recently put bars in her windows to combat break-ins. “I have to live like I’m in jail,” Avery said. “Have we seen anything built and transformed here? I haven’t.”
Baker said that continued reductions in crime depend on other gains he hopes to see in improved education, developing reentry programs for convicts and creating job-training programs for young people.
He said teams with the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative will remain in place indefinitely, or at least until they see “dramatic change.”
“We’re not going to quit the program once we got good numbers and say, ‘Okay, it’s over,’ ” Baker said. “We’re not abandoning the program if the numbers go the other direction. We’re going to look at the data. We’re going to make tweaks and changes to our programs based on the data. And then we’re going to stay there.”