A busload of Harford County government officials descended Thursday morning on an Edgewood neighborhood that has experienced several recent shootings, yet another effort to publicize their concern about the situation.
Included in the group were the county executive, sheriff, county council members, department heads and a state senator who is running for county executive. In addition to stopping in the heart of the area where the latest violence occurred, the group drove through other high crime neighborhoods.
Following recent shootings on Grempler Way that included one murder, Sheriff Jesse Bane and County Executive David Craig pledged to stand by Edgewood and drive the criminal element out, while also identifying causes and solutions to the crime problems.
Bane, Craig, County Council President Billy Boniface, Councilman Dion Guthrie and Councilman Jim McMahan joined Edgewood community members and police officers from the Harford County Sheriff's Office on the walk through and bus tour, as did most of Craig's top department heads and State Sen. Barry Glassman, who is running for county executive in 2014.
Sgt. Mark Fox from the Violent Street Crimes Unit led the tour, telling participants on the bus about criminal activities in each neighborhood they were passing through and what police were doing to combat the crime.
The bus was an air-conditioned blue Harford Transit Link bus, which took the tour participants from county offices in Bel Air to Edgewood's neighborhoods, passing through Brookside Drive and then Judy Way before stopping on Grempler Way.
Fox pointed out "cut-throughs," or gaps in rows of houses that allow people easy access in and out of the neighborhoods.
"You have the criminal element using them and you have the community using them to get to the shopping center," Fox said, noting that effective solutions must minimize the use of those areas by criminals while not negatively affecting their use by law-abiding members of the community.
Daphne Alston, the co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons & Daughters of Maryland, said that the community was aware of the issues, and had heard a lot of talk, but needs some action.
"I'm just making sure [working on cut-throughs] is not the only solution," Alston said.
Fox noted her concern, and said that community involvement was essential in fighting crime, and recognized the dangers involved.
"As police, we understand that when we're investigating, we need the help of the community," Fox said. "We understand that when we're here investigating, coming up to a police officer and talking to them; there might be problems with that."
Fox noted there are options to speak to and share information with the police anonymously.
"It takes a community effort to eliminate crime or at least get a hold on it," Fox said.
Fox also pointed out the cameras attached to streetlights on Brookside Drive across from Grempler Way.
"[The camera system] has helped, and somewhat displaces the activity, but the more cameras we have, the better," Fox said.
McMahan said Edgewood is being maligned for events in one small area like Grempler Way.
"It's disingenuous to the good people of Edgewood to always be labeled because of two bad neighborhoods," McMahan said. "It's like cancer. You don't kill the patient to remove the cancer, you surgically remove the cancer."
Standing on the sidewalk on Brookside Drive, Guthrie proudly pointed at Eloise Lane and Judy Way as success stories, referring to projects that fixed the condition of the apartments and roads seven years ago.
"[The two streets] looked exactly like Grempler Way," Guthrie said. "We were able to get some grant money to fix them. They've held up extremely well."
Craig agreed, noting that in years past there were many more bad neighborhoods in Edgewood, but thanks to county efforts they had improved, and that the same was possible for Grempler Way.
"Since we've got it done on Judy and Eloise and some other places, I'm pretty sure we can get it done there [on Grempler]," Craig said.
The tour then continued on Brookside Drive, passing the Edgewood Recreation and Community Center before proceeding around Edgewater Park and passing in front of The Village at Lakeview Apartments. The bus also drove through 1st Harford Square and Windsor Valley Apartments on Meadowood Drive.
With space on the bus limited, some community members followed by car. Also following were police cars and a few officers on bicycles.
Following the tour, Craig said that he would hold a meeting with his department heads to discuss specific problems they encountered, particularly on Grempler Way, so the appropriate department can tackle each problem.
Specifically, Craig said, the meeting will look into what kinds of projects are necessary, how much they will cost and whose responsibility they will be.
Bane said afterward that getting others involved was the major reason for Thursday's walk through as "the issues that face that community are not just issues that the Sheriff's Office alone can solve."
The county officials and department heads present do have the ability to solve those problems, he added.
"Some agencies of government only respond when there's a complaint," Bane said, noted that people on Grempler Way in many cases are hesitant to complain about their problems to the county or are unaware of their options.
Bane said a strategic plan would be formulated for Edgewood later this summer, and this walk through would help.
"When we sit down and start doing the strategic plan for the community, some of the people on that walk through will be sitting at the table working on that plan," Bane said. "You can't be sitting in an office [elsewhere]; you need to see what you're dealing with in order to effectively address the problem."
Even the walk through was already having a positive effect, Bane said.
"Well, I already know that some people in the community that came out to talk to me have a better feeling about what's going on in the community after seeing we were there," Bane said. "There's a little more trust that has built up between the community and government."
"A lot of good people live in that community and they should not have to live in fear," the sheriff added. "It is a responsibility of public safety; a responsibility of government; a responsibility of the community to make sure that people can do whatever anyone else can do without having to fear for their safety."
Craig said that many of the problems in Edgewater Village and similar troubled neighborhoods stem from neglectful property owners, many of whom don't live in the community and rent the homes to others.
We have to "get [homeowners] to turn around and improve the outside looks" of their properties, he said. "The home owners association needs to allow renters to attend the meetings."
"If a certain percentage of units of a neighborhood are rented, and the owner isn't taking an active role in the homeowners association, then the renter needs to have some say in what goes on," he added.
Despite the spike in violence on Grempler Way this summer, Craig said, Edgewood had come a long way in recent years.
"We drove around quite a nice area of Edgewood and saw how nice the areas are," Craig said. "We've done tours around Edgewood and it didn't used to be so nice. We've done a lot of improvement."