Following last month's spike in violence that included a shooting death, Harford Sheriff Jesse Bane announced a new initiative to drive the criminals out of the Edgewater Village community, long a hotspot of drug and gang activity, various crimes against property and a disproportionate number of murders compared to the county as a whole.
Bane has promised more deployment of resources into the community, which also means more overtime for deputies and less of their presence elsewhere in the county, in case you weren't reading or listening closely. A walk-through of the community to hear from residents and look at the situation first-hand was also scheduled for this week by County Executive David Craig, who met last week with members of the Edgewood Community Council and promised his administration's support to help clean up the crime problem.
This cycle tends to repeat itself every few years. Violent crime escalates somewhere in Edgewood, typically west of Route 24. Bane, as did other sheriffs before him, reacts with a show of force. Other county officials express outrage. Community leaders appeal for help. Usually the crime tamps down for awhile, or maybe it just moves back and forth across Hanson Road. The pattern should be familiar by now.
Observing the Edgewood crime situation over a number of years, I've come to the conclusion that much of what transpires is probably not preventable. The communities where most of the killings take place - Edgewater Village, Windsor Valley (nee Meadowood), Courts of Harford Square and Harford Square - plus those that immediately surround them have a high concentration of rental units, many with subsidized rents that, like it or not, tend to be a magnet for criminal elements.
There was a time I was quick to blame the landlords for the problem, but I'm not so sure about that anymore. You can only do so much screening, and short of keeping guards at the entrance to every townhouse enclave and every apartment building, how can you really monitor who comes and goes – or who moves in once the lease is signed?
That monitoring system, incidentally, never really worked too well at the public housing high rises in Baltimore, where crime simply moved to the surrounding low rise communities until they, like the high rises, were bulldozed. When all that happened in the 1990s, and contrary to what your elected officials at the federal, state and county levels told you at the time, a significant number of people living in those subsidized housing projects in the city were handed Section 8 rent vouchers and decamped to Harford County, where they found a willing market for those vouchers in places like west Edgewood, Perryman and other Route 40 communities.
Is it fair to paint low income people and subsidized housing with a broad brush and equate them to higher crime rates? I frankly don't know what's fair, but I found it quite interesting last week when a county zoning hearing examiner issued his ruling in the zoning appeals case involving a plan to develop 198 apartment units in the Bel Air South area. In approving the plan by Evergreen Business Trust, one of the conditions attached by examiner Robert Kahoe, states: "No unit shall be leased on a subsidized or assistance basis. The owners shall not participate in a voucher, Section 8 or similar program."
That's a rather extreme condition, one whose legality is probably subject to challenge, and the entire decision still has to pass muster with the Harford County Council. Still, you can see the motivation behind it, and a number of those living in Bel Air South who attended the zoning hearings raised the specter of subsidized housing among the adverse impacts they say the apartments will have on their community.
My eyes were first opened to the Edgewood crime problem in the early 1990s when I covered a program the sheriff at the time initiated, either Bob Comes or Joe Meadows, I can't remember which, to supposedly nip potential crime problems in the bud. Deputies were stationed on Gateway Drive, one of the main entrances to Edgewater Village (I think it was before the original 7-Eleven became the first Southern Precinct Station), early one Saturday morning, and as vehicles left the community, they were stopped and their licenses and registration's checked.
The checkpoint was planned to find people who had gotten Virginia tags to dodge the mandatory Maryland insurance regulations - Virginia had no such requirement then - or who might be driving with suspended or revoked licenses or with stolen tags. Over the space of two or three hours, there were a number of tickets written and a few arrests made, including a couple for outstanding warrants and, I think, one for drug possession. I guess the point was to remind the community the sheriff was watching. A decade later, however, when the first real serious gang violence exploded in and around Edgewater Village, the "we're watching" message apparently wasn't cogent anymore.
I don't proffer solutions in this column, because I long ago came to the conclusion you can't fight crime until you get to the root cause. People don't respect the law and the rights of others for a variety of reasons, the majority of them social and economic in nature. Threat of punishment seems to have little effect. The criminal justice system in this state is badly broken, thanks to lousy judges and poor prison administrators selected by governors of every political stripe, so tough policing and prosecuting has little impact in the end.
The cycle of crime and violence in Edgewood and a few other communities in Harford County took their foothold and put down roots two to three decades ago. It's one of those situations where everyone is to blame and nobody is to blame, one where had we reacted differently at points along the way, I'm not sure the outcome would have been changed.
It's a depressing thought, none-the-less.