Serious crime in Woodlawn: Perception or reality?

A police-community meeting in north Catonsville Tuesday night sparked a debate on crime trends in the Woodlawn area and how to address them, particularly when they involve juveniles.

The meeting featured a panel including Matthew Gorman, the captain of the county police Woodlawn station, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Dundalk police precinct Capt. Orlando Lilly. Charles Sydnor, a state delegate who represents the area, said he organized the meeting to help the community confront perceptions of crime with reality.

“The perception is that this is an unsafe part of Baltimore County,” Sydnor said. “My reality is that it is not.”

Questions from the community on drugs and violent crime revealed a divide between those worried that law enforcement is too lax, and those who want to see police trading handcuffs for conversation and working to engage youths with family and behavioral health problems.

“As a community, we are letting down our young people by looking for easy answers,” said precinct resident Janice Brooks-Black. “Not everyone belongs behind bars.”

One woman, who said she was the victim of a recent carjacking, had the opposite concern, said she had heard that violent juveniles were being quickly released rather than being detained, potentially causing a public safety hazard.

In response, Betsy Tolentino, director of pre-adjudication at the state’s Department of Juvenile Services, said that many have that perception because by law, juvenile cases have to move through the system within 30 days, whereas adult cases can take a year.

“We can’t arrest our way out of these issues,” Lilly, from the Dundalk precinct, said, saying when young people commit crimes it is often due to poverty or an unstable home life. “They’re still kids.”

Shellenberger, whose job is to prosecute crimes, described a process by which he divides young lawbreakers into two “tracks.” Young people who commit “mischief” crimes are sent through the juvenile services process, he said, while his office seeks to try violent crimes involving weapons in adult court.

Marisol Johnson, president of the Security Woodlawn Business Association, took issue with that characterization, particularly when it comes to what Shellenberger called “violent drug dealers.”

“No child wants to grow up and become a drug dealer,” Johnson said. “People are selling drugs because it’s their main source of income. What are we doing to rehabilitate those drug dealers?”

Shellenberger said that like with juvenile crimes, he splits drug dealers into categories — those who deal by choice, and those who deal to feed an addiction. While those struggling with addiction should get reduced sentences if they go through treatment, Shellenberger said, dealers who own or carry illegal weapons should get mandatory minimums.

The opioid crisis weighed heavily on the conversation. Gorman said there have been 17 fatal overdoses in the Woodlawn precinct this year, out of more than 270 countywide. Sydnor asked the panel if they believed the opioid crisis is driving crime in the precinct.

“Opioid related crimes are an issue,” Gorman said. “It does drive a number of different crimes.”

Despite that, the panel insisted that crime in the Woodlawn precinct is on par with previous years.

Shellenberger, the prosecutor, said that felonies across the county have remained relatively steady for the past 10 years. The internet has simply made information about each crime in a neighborhood easier to see, he said, making it seem like it is a bigger problem.

Gorman said that in the last half of 2017, crimes so far have been down in every category but burglaries, which are driven by a high rate of car thefts. Most of those incidents, he said, happen after people leave their keys in the car. Seven such thefts, all with keys in the car, happened in the Woodlawn precinct last week, he said.

“It just takes a minute,” Gorman said, urging the public not to leave keys in the car. “Cars these days are hard to take without the key.”

Otherwise, Gorman said, the average crime rate is “about where it’s been” in the Woodlawn area.

“I think we have some very thriving communities,” Gorman said.

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