A yellow harvest moon hangs over Columbia as the Howard County police robbery suppression team heads out on one of its final patrols.
"The moon does something to people," says Pfc. Tyrone Queen as he cruises the streets of Long Reach village with his partner, Pfc. Susan Reider, in an unmarked car.
They drive through the parking lots of the Sierra Woods Apartments in Long Reach village to see if they can buy drugs from any of the three men seated casually in one of the lots. None of them moves when Queen approaches.
"This is an open-air drug market," Queen says to a reporter riding along.
But the moon does not produce the problems Queen expects, in part because the word is out that police have been targeting such gathering places in Columbia's Town Center and Long Reach and Oakland Mills villages since the 10-week robbery suppression program began in July.
Even as some business owners and village officials clamor for a greater police presence in Columbia, the officers said the robbery suppression program has accomplished all it can.
The program has not led to a decrease in street robberies as compared with the same period last year, police data show. But police insist that it brought to a halt the increase in such crimes that had occurred immediately before the program began.
The program's efforts in Columbia will end Sept. 20, police said. It might be revived in another part of the county, but police have not determined when or where.
"You reach a point of diminishing returns," said Lt. William McMahon, commander of the police special operations unit in charge of the suppression program. "We'll pull out [our] resources and see if we had a long-term impact."
Prompted by seven robberies in six weeks this spring in Long Reach and Oakland Mills, police assigned 15 uniformed and plainclothes officers to curb other crimes that might be connected to robberies -- such as loitering, drug dealing and traffic violations.
Police say they accomplished that goal by dispersing groups from such gathering spots as the Long Reach Exxon service station and by arresting people for minor crimes and then finding that they had long criminal histories that included robbery.
But employees and owners of businesses in the targeted villages say they haven't noticed a decrease in crime. They say the efforts of the robbery suppression unit should have been more obvious and that officers should have patrolled the targeted areas more frequently.
44 are arrested
As a result of the detail, police arrested 44 people from July 18 through Wednesday, McMahon said. The breakdown: 29 for alleged drug offenses, five on outstanding warrants and 10 on traffic charges, such as driving while intoxicated or with a suspended license. About 90 percent of those arrested were from Howard.
Police received reports of three robberies in the designated areas during the eight weeks -- the same number reported from July 18 to Sept. 4 of last year.
But in the weeks before the program began, there was a rash of street robberies in the targeted areas, and police said the apparent stemming of this increase shows that the suppression program worked.
"We would have been shocked to catch an armed robbery in progress," McMahon said. "We wanted to catch armed robbers doing something else. We got a sense of who's out there and found significant criminal histories on some people we've stopped."
The detail's officers patrol on foot and by car. Pfc. Tom Claxton covers Oakland Mills on foot, patrolling its village center, apartment parking lots and secluded pathways.
On a recent night, Claxton is wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans, but his radio, badge and flashlight give him away. He watches the village center entrance nearest to Oakland Mills Liquors to see if juveniles gathered at a nearby bench ask adults to buy them alcohol.
Alcohol is problem
"One of the biggest links to juvenile crime is alcohol," he says. "People on a tight income can [make] a dollar off of each kid and have $5. I've been solicited off-duty."
But the night is quiet. No adults appear to accept offers from the youths.
"One night, we made 14 arrests" for various offenses, Claxton says. "Word wasn't out that the police were busy. But now, people are laying low."
But Oakland Mills Liquors owner Ken Keepers says he hasn't seen any decrease in youths trying to buy liquor since the robbery detail started and believes that the police presence should have been more obvious.
"I can stand here and watch the kids hand people money," Keepers says, pointing to a row of benches between the village center entrance and the Other Barn.
"You chase them away, and they're back an hour later."
Resident feels safe
Claxton stops to chat with Oakland Mills resident Chester Bell, who was robbed of $90 near the village center in May. Despite the mugging, Bell says he feels safe.
"Everybody knows me, and I know everybody, so it had to be someone not from around here," says Bell, a porter at the Tor Apartments for 17 years.
Meanwhile, Oakland Mills village board President David Hatch said the program achieved its goal -- and that he would welcome its renewal.
"There used to be complaints [about loitering], but I don't hear so many anymore," he said. "We don't have the crime people think we do, but it makes people feel safer to have an active police presence."
Back in Long Reach, Reider says she and Queen prefer car patrols to foot patrols because traffic stops give officers a chance to find evidence of crimes.
"We have the whole car to search and can make an arrest," Reider says.
Reider compares her assessment of a situation to a doctor diagnosing a patient: "A doctor makes a diagnosis based on symptoms. We look at a suspect's car and behavior and make a diagnosis based on that."
They are devoting particular attention to pay telephones at the Exxon gas station near the Long Reach Village Center, because drug dealers often make connections there. But on this damp night during the first week of school in Howard County, the phones are quiet.
'It's pretty bad now'
Patrick Cruise, an employee at the Exxon station, says crowds around the phones did not decrease this summer -- nor had the pace of shoplifting from the convenience store.
"I think it would have been a lot worse if they hadn't done [the robbery program], but it's pretty bad now," Cruise says.
At the same time, the chairwoman of the Long Reach village board, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, said she's concerned that the program's focus on Long Reach might make the crime problem seem worse that it is.
"I didn't feel crime was rampant to begin with," she said. "By targeting the village, it may send a signal that the village is more dangerous when it's not."
And in Oakland Mills -- while making a final pass by the Royal Farms convenience store on Stevens Forest Road -- Claxton says police must keep a close eye on the robbery detail's target areas to ensure that their work this summer has a lasting effect.
"We can get by with less presence, but you can't hit a place hard, then say, 'See ya later,' " he says. "You have to cultivate a relationship with citizens who could be sources of information in the future."
The Howard County police recently assigned plainclothes officers to certain areas of Columbia in an effort to suppress a rise in street robberies. The second article in a two-part series takes a look at the accomplishments of the program and the reaction of officers on the beat and the people they serve.
Pub Date: 9/09/96