This is a report on last night’s meeting on Ward One public safety issues. I convened the meeting in order to give residents an opportunity to express concerns about a perceived increase in residential break-ins and other public safety issues (in particular in the areas closest to the border with Washington, DC), and to hear from Police about those concerns. I have tried to make this report comprehensive, but I encourage anyone who was at the meeting to respond to this email with any key points I have neglected to mention. Overall, I believe we live in a safe community, but when certain categories of crimes show an upward trend it is important for us to work with the Police and City officials to understand the trends and consider what actions it may make sense to take in order to address the problem.
In addition to the attached power point presented by the Police at the meeting, you may also want to check out the "Crime Statistics" page on the City website, which has a link tothe Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and Police Reports for the 7 previous years: http://takomaparkmd.gov/government/police/crime-statistics/.
PARTICIPANTS. In attendance at the meeting were approximately 40 Ward One residents, plus myself, Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart, Deputy City Manager Jason Damweber, Police Chief Alan Goldberg, 5 other police officers along with Crime Analyst Andrea Artero, and Ron Hardy, Takoma Park Emergency Manager. Thanks to all, residents and City staff, for attending.
MEETING FORMAT. The format of the meeting included an opportunity for all members of the public to offer comments about their concerns, after which the Police presented the attached power point, followed by a Q and A/open discussion period. The meeting was very informative, and it gave residents an opportunity to express their concerns and describe their experiences to the Police, and also for the Police to lay out the crime trends, explain their strategies, and provide suggestions for actions residents can take to reduce the likelihood that they will be victims of crime. COMMENT: I consider the meeting to have been very important, but I also think it is vital that we take additional steps (working with the Police, and taking into account community views) that will help move us in a positive direction on public safety issues. Meaning -- this is not a one-off event.
RESIDENTS’ CONCERNS. Among the issues and concerns raised initially by resident were: the apparent “casing” of our neighborhoods, given the burglaries that are taking place during very brief periods in which homes are empty (that is, people leaving for less than a half hour); the need for improved lighting; the need for better collaboration with other jurisdictions, especially Washington, DC; the record on arrests and convictions, especially in light of the repeat offenses that are occurring; challenges relating to Takoma Park police dispatchers; and when residents should call the Police if they see suspicious activity. COMMENT: these were the issues that I think were emphasized the most; people should feel free to let me know about other areas of concern, or, again, if I omitted any key concerns expressed last night.
KEY FINDINGS. Mr. Artero’s presentation of recent crime trends was very useful. The key finding: despite the overall decline in crime within Takoma Park, this year Ward One (in comparison to last year) has seen an increase in residential burglaries (from 24 to 35). Neither of these figures includes December burglaries, so we can expect the numbers to go higher. We should also note that that it is possible, per Mr. Artero, that the increased number may be due to increased reporting, which can’t really be measured. COMMENT: In absolute terms these numbers are not high, but, given the concerns about “casing”, the instances of repeat burglaries of the same homes, and the recent examples of near-burglaries (that is, situations in which would-be burglars were scared off), I believe the numbers are significant enough that we do need to be more vigilant and explore with the police (and as a neighborhood) further steps that can help move the trend in the other direction.
BURGLARY PATTERNS. Unlike in previous years, the current group of burglaries do not appear to be tied to specific times of day, with many happening (or at least being attempted) in the evening or at other times when residents may be home (though most are still happening when no one is home). There do appear to be plenty of repeat offenders, some while they are under investigation or already facing criminal charges for previous crimes. The Takoma Park police have had some success catching criminals or groups of criminals (e.g. the Rittenhouse group) through innovative methods like checking the GPS history of convicted Washington, DC residents who have been wearing ankle tracking devices.
WASHINGTON, DC BORDER ISSUES. The border with Washington, DC is a critical factor. In addition to Ward One (in particular the part nearest the DC line), Ward III (also the part nearest the DC line) is the other part of the city with the highest residential burglary incidence. Other crimes like thefts from automobiles (a much more common crime than residential burglaries) are more evenly distributed throughout the city. Our police have some ability to make arrests of people who commit crimes here (in Maryland) and who end up physically in DC, but we need to complete action on a Memorandum of Understanding that will allow for greater collaboration with DC (and also Prince George’s). The MOU recently signed with Montgomery County can serve as a model for that, but there is lots of work still to be done to finalize the MOU with DC (and it will always be more restrictive than an MOU relating to Maryland Counties, where our police have greater arrest authority). COMMENT: Mayor Stewart and I made the point that, as elected officials, we are prepared to play a role in helping to facilitate completion of the MOU by reaching out to our elected counterparts in Washington. I expect this will be an ongoing discussion.
TAKOMA PARK POLICE PATROLS. Our police are actively patrolling in Ward One, including in unmarked cars, by foot and in other ways. A number of perpetrators have been caught or thwarted because of the immediate presence within the neighborhood. COMMENT: I expressed the view in the meeting that we need a greater, more visible Police presence in the areas close to the DC border. This is an issue that I will continue to pursue with the Police and other City officials.
LIGHTING. This topic was not covered in as much detail as others, but key points that emerged were that additional motion lights around homes are helpful; we need to immediately inform City Staff when streetlights are out; and it is helpful (to make walkers more secure) if residents leave their porch lights on as late as they feel comfortable. COMMENT: When the trees are fully leafed again, we should conduct a survey of those that block streetlights and, with the arborist, determine how to address the problem.
CONTACTING POLICE. It is generally a little faster to call the direct Takoma Park Police phone number (301-270-1100) than to call 911 (which is routed through Montgomery County). Also, the local number is better if you are calling with a cell phone. COMMENT: Several residents complained about poor service from the Takoma Park dispatchers. The Chief urged that residents in such cases let Police supervisors know (after the incident in question is over, if necessary) so better training or other steps can be taken.
There was also extensive discussion about when and under what circumstances to call police if you see something suspicious. Here the Homeland Security adage “if you see something, say something” applies. The police urged residents not to feel defensive or embarrassed if they see someone on the street behaving suspiciously. They emphasized that they do not come with guns blazing in such situations, but do approach the person to check out what they are doing. People soliciting door to door are supposed to have City permits. COMMENT: This is a sensitive area – but I think most of us can distinguish between people we don’t know who are walking purposefully down the street and someone who appears to be engaging in “casing” behavior. We heard a number of examples in the meeting of residents who didn’t call police in cases that appeared to be suspicious, some of which did end up involving break-ins. By the same token, it is reasonable for us to expect the Police to approach those who have not obviously committed any crimes respectfully. In my opinion this should be an ongoing community discussion, but I do believe it is reasonable for people to err on the side of caution.
ACTIONS RESIDENTS CAN TAKE. According to the Police data, 47 percent of residential burglaries are not “by force” meaning that the burglars were able to find a way of getting into the residence without having to break a window, knock down a door, etc. So, the Police recommended that residents should redouble their efforts to make sure they lock up even if they leave for only brief periods of time. In addition, the police recommend that residents hide valuable items – including especially electronics like laptops, ipads, etc. --- so they are not visible from outside the house; let their neighbors know when they are going out of town or perhaps even leaving for briefer time periods; let the Police Department know when you are away for longer periods including the holidays (there is a house check program you can use to alert the police – call the 301-270-1100 number); record your electronics’ and other serial numbers (in some cases residents have been able to recover stolen items this way, although if they end up in Washington, it can be more difficult to recover the items even when they have been tracked); and consider getting an alarm system, possibly including motion sensor lights. You can also ask the Police to conduct a security survey of your home. COMMENT: We love the small town feel of Takoma Park, but I believe it is prudent, especially for those who are close to the DC border, to consider taking some of these steps, and certainly to keep their homes locked, especially when not at home or when not on the first floor.
In order to continue this type of discussion with residents, I would be glad to meet periodically with neighborhood groups (or individuals) or find other ways to channel concerns and issues to the Police. I am open to suggestions on how best to do that, though of course continued use of the listservs is great.
I will work with the Mayor and other city officials (based on discussions with the Police) to determine if we can help strengthen our border public safety collaboration with Washington, DC.
I will continue to press for more active, visible Police patrolling in the areas closest to the border.
I would like to work with interested residents on a tree (and perhaps other vegetation) survey after the winter
Please tell your neighbors (and the police) if you will be away for several days or more around the holidays (include having your mail and newspapers held or picked up by neighbors).
Consider asking the police to conduct a security survey and take other steps to improve security in your home.
If residents would like to reconstitute a Neighborhood Watch, I would be glad to reach out to the Police about it (the neighborhood would need to organize it, but it would be done in collaboration with the Police).
It does not appear at this point that significant additional financial or other resources are needed by the Police Department, but that is something I will do my best to monitor within the Council.
And I am glad of course to consider other suggestions from residents.
Thanks (and sorry for sending such a lengthy email).
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council