Westminster neighbors fight crime, help needy


Carol Maiello had nice neighbors on Pennsylvania Avenue, a young husband and wife. But after their car was repeatedly vandalized, they moved away.

Christie Staples of West Main Street "liked the idea of people fighting crime in the neighborhood."

Yvonne B. Cooper of Union Street worried about "oodles of teen-agers hanging around. We knew there was drug activity."

When fliers were circulated in June inviting Westminster residents living in the area bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Union Street and West Main Street to get together and learn how they could take back the streets, the three women joined about 50 other residents at a meeting.

The person behind the fliers was the Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach, pastor of Union Street United Methodist Church, who opened the church for initial meetings of the group that became Neighbors United. The minister now serves as adviser to the group.

"We wanted a body of people we could go to the police with to let them know how serious we were about taking the neighborhood back," said Linda Lyons, Neighbors United's president.

Mrs. Lyons offered to compose the fliers on her computer, "and the next thing I know, I'm being elected president."

By all accounts, Neighbors United is a success story. Suspected drug trafficking has decreased in the area. The group has learned how to report suspicious activities to police, persuaded Westminster police to send officers on regular foot patrols through the area, and has gotten city government to increase wattage on street lights through the neighborhood and install additional lights on Union Street.

Some suspected drug dealers have been evicted from neighborhood rental housing, Mrs. Lyons said.

She said she has noticed that elderly people have recently begun attending the monthly meetings, which means they now feel safe enough to venture out after dark.

Lt. Randy Barnes, a city police spokesman, credits the residents with providing information about unusual foot traffic that police used to determine where illegal drug dealing was taking place.

"It's like a partnership between the community and the Police Department," Lieutenant Barnes said.

He said the department began a problem-oriented policing program early this year, looking at areas where police received frequent calls and trying to find underlying causes. When Neighbors United formed, it was a natural fit with problem-oriented policing, he said.

Police Chief Sam R. Leppo, Lieutenant Barnes and Detective Lt. Dean Brewer met with the residents several times. The officers told the residents how to use the 857-TIPS line for suspected drug activity and other tips that don't require immediate responses. The police also talked about what neighbors should look for and what information is important to police when reporting a crime. City police staged two drug raids on Pennsylvania Avenue during the summer. The arrests have "sort of returned the area to quiet," Lieutenant Barnes said.

Residents who attended the November Neighbors United meeting last week agreed that their streets have become quieter, although they attributed the change partly to the onset of cold weather.

Neighbors United also has expanded into activities other than working to make the streets safe for residents. The association collected canned goods and bought a Thanksgiving turkey for a neighborhood family. Members plan a similar effort at Christmas. They plan to go caroling along Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Dec. 18 and end the caroling session with a holiday party.

Phyllis Anderson, vice president of Neighbors United and a Pennsylvania Avenue resident, exemplifies the association's spirit. Last week, although tired from a recent trip, she went to buy a turkey. She reported at the association meeting that she would take it to the recipient. But she worried aloud whether the family would be able to prepare it.

"I'll take it over and if I see a problem, I can bake that turkey," she said. "I'll just take it home and do it."

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