THE EPIPHANY for Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann came last month. As she rode in a sheriff's patrol car on a routine check-up, the radio call came in: Incident at the Edgewater Village apartments.
The sanguinary scene that greeted her was overwhelming: Two men with knives had slashed each other mercilessly, the glass patio door was shattered, a drug deal had turned violent.
"I thought I was in another place, not in Harford County," she recalled. "You can't imagine what it's really like if you just read about it or hear about it."
Then came the real shocker. A carload of teen-agers from out of town pulled into the parking lot. They had a large wad of cash. They asked for directions to another location, but it seemed clear that they had been expecting to buy.
A short time later, another car of youths turned into the lot, then quickly drove away as they saw the police activity.
The episode emphasized for Mrs. Rehrmann the impact that a high-crime area can have on the health of an entire county. Drug dealers in one spot can draw customers from all over the region to buy their wares of death.
Good try, not enough
While Edgewood residents have made earnest efforts over the years to improve their community, the results have not been satisfactory, the county executive declared. The crime rate in Edgewood is double that of other Harford police precincts. Illegal drug trade is painfully apparent.
A comprehensive program involving community policing, problem-solving by local residents and economic aid is urgently needed, she said. As well as a halt to expansion of subsidized, low-income rental housing there.
A full-time police presence is also essential, she said, something that Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows has been pushing for a year.
So the county will buy a former 7-Eleven store in Edgewood and remodel it as Harford's first sheriff substation outside Bel Air. The $440,000 proposal goes to the County Council this week; a sales contract has been signed, Mrs. Rehrmann said.
The new station on Gateway Road will have sheriff's deputies, a lockup area and patrol cars ready for quick dispatch. More officers on patrol in Edgewood will beef up law enforcement and expand citizen feedback.
Sheriff Meadows created an Edgewood patrol sector as one of his first actions, reacting to the notably high rate of crime and emergency calls in that area. Businesses earlier donated offices for deputies use at several Edgewood locations in order to raise the police profile.
The executive now wants a Maryland State Police SWAT team to set up in Edgewood. That will advertise the availability of police officers to meet community needs. The county also will put money into a Boys and Girls Club facility for Edgewood, she said, and into basketball courts for housing complexes.
This full-court press on crime in Edgewood may score points with the community. It may reduce the incidence of crime. It may force narcotics peddlers to go elsewhere, but local efforts can't dry up the ever-mobile drug trade.
What is disappointing is that this concerted action comes so long after the exceptional crime problem in Edgewood was obvious. Police statistics reflected that problem, residents complained about it. But there was never enough money, until this bare-bones county budget miraculously produced an extra $400,000 barely three months into the fiscal year.
Blaming the media
Official responses to Edgewood's crime problem in the past seemed to focus on economic revitalization and sprucing up the civic image. Even as she was deploring the newfound rise of criminality in Edgewood last week, Mrs. Rehrmann blamed the news media for besmirching the community's reputation.
Fact is, concerned Edgewood citizens have done much to improve their town. They've worked for better services and recreation facilities.
Neighbors Involved in the Community of Edgewood has attacked a variety of problems from trash to drug-selling to community neglect. The Route 40 Business Association pressed for designation of Edgewood as a state "enterprise zone," with tax benefits. The community planning council developed projects.
But Edgewood remains a relatively poor area, with the county's largest concentration of public housing, an unincorporated urban area defined by two highways with transient traffic, relying on county services that often target a rural-exurban population. Those factors can contribute to the crime rate.
Establishment of a police station in Edgewood, with officers actively patrolling the business area and residential neighborhoods, should help to crack down on crime in southernmost Harford County.
But Edgewood residents themselves will still play the major role in cleaning up their neighborhoods.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.