7 police officers move into public housing


The first thing to go was the king-sized water bed. The hulking piece of furniture wouldn't fit in Baltimore police Officer Charles Koonce's new home -- a city public-housing apartment.

There's no wall-to-wall carpeting and forget about a dishwasher. But the location, Officer Koonce said, is close to work -- the Eastern District police station and city courts. The rent is $150 a month.

And his new neighbors in the Brentwood, a 25th Street high-rise for the elderly, say they're delighted to have a police officer strolling around the grounds, chatting with them.

"If I live here," he said, "I should do my part."

Thirty years old and single, Officer Koonce is one of seven officers who have moved into public housing as part of Operation Safe Home, anew program approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has HUD's OK to move up to 20 city and Housing Authority police officers into public housing units all over the city.

"It gives the residents a sense of safety and a sense of caring," saidBaltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

"It puts us in more contact with the residents and [lets us] expand on our community policing," said Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the city's Housing Authority police force. "Police officers, when they're part of the community, have a tendency to be more sensitive to the community."

Other cities -- including Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.; Manchester, N.H.; and Washington -- already have officers as public-housing tenants.

"It provides an extra layer of security on the property," said Lucy Murray, spokeswoman for Washington's Department of Public and Assisted Housing. "And the other thing we wanted is to provide role models for the young people in public housing."

Baltimore's program was advertised with simple notices on station bulletin boards two months ago. "We got more responses than we expected," Mr. Bunch said.

Among those interested was Housing Authority police Officer Wallace Sampson -- married with children ages 10, 9, 8 and 3. The family plans to move into a low-rise building "in the Broadway area" as soon as an apartment with enough bedrooms is renovated.

It was not an easy decision, Officer Sampson said. "My wife and I talked about it and thought about it for a long time before we actually decided to do it. We wanted to be sure our family will be safe."

So he "scouted out the activity" on the streets around a couple of housing complexes and chose one in East Baltimore.

The $115 rent will save the family, which now rents a house in Baltimore, about $500 a month. Officer Sampson said the savings will allow the family to buy a car.

With another Housing Authority officer planning to move into a unit nearby, Officer Sampson envisions starting "a little youth organization, because if we start out with the kids at that young age, they'll come to us instead of going out and doing something crazy."

Officer Koonce, who grew up in Randallstown and has never lived in the city, decided to try life in public housing because "I'm up for new challenges."

He moved into a one-bedroom apartment at the Brentwood June 6. An 11-year veteran of the force, he thought he knew everything about the city. "I was wrong," he said as he gazed from his cement balcony overlooking 25th Street's traffic.

Instead of the trees he saw in Cockeysville, he now looks out on a row of houses marred by a boarded-up building. Instead of suburban quiet, he hears the roar of 18-wheelers, the scream of sirens and the buzzing of police helicopters. He's seen prostitutes looking for clients on a nearby corner and dealers selling drugs a few blocks away.

His parents, Officer Koonce said, were stunned by his decision to move. But the officer's father, the senior Charles Koonce, said his son has his blessing.

"Since he is a mature individual and a grown person, I didn't say anything," said Mr. Koonce, a Baltimore County insurance agent, "except I told him to check out the area he was moving to. He said he liked the section and he felt he could be a benefit to the community, so we said it was all right with us."

Officer Koonce soon learned firsthand about problems in public housing.

His toilet promptly stopped working. The stove had to be replaced, as did the refrigerator. He set off roach bombs before moving in and carefully sprinkled boric acid, a roach deterrent, along the baseboards -- at the suggestion of his new neighbors.

Gerald M. Wilson, the president of the Brentwood tenant's council, walked Officer Koonce around the building to show him syringes that passers-by tossed into the gutter. If problems arise, Mr. Wilson said, he intends to dial 911 for police help. He's vowed to call on the officer "for emergencies only. Otherwise, I let him get his sleep."

"But I know I can get up out of my bed any time day or night and knock on his door and say, 'Look, I got a problem.' "

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