Village starts blueprint for change Harper's Choice lists loitering as a top issue at two-day meeting


Loitering and the perception of crime are the most pressing issues facing Columbia's Harper's Choice village, according to participants in a two-day meeting on community policing.

Though it took 10 hours over two days to reach that unsurprising conclusion, organizers said the idea was not just to address Harper's Choice's problems but also to develop a blueprint that can be used by other communities.

"We can take this process and bring it to the next community down the road," said Maj. Jeff Spaulding of the Howard County Police Department. Community policing "has always been a growing process, building on small problems. Now, we're broadening this out."

Run by the Community Policing Consortium, a national group of police foundations and organizations, the meeting had its 40 or so participants doing everything from drawing colorful sketches to dividing into groups for round-table discussions and listening to buzzword-filled lectures.

Harper's Choice was chosen by the consortium and Howard County police for the meeting because many perceive it as a crime-troubled area but one with strong community leadership. Police statistics show a decrease in crime during the first three months of this year. But last year, assaults increased from 129 in 1996 to 199; burglaries doubled, and thefts rose from 168 to 187.

Still, Brian Beebe, treasurer of the Stratford Square Homeowners Association, summed up the feelings of many when he said his main goal was to prevent the growth of crime and overcome the perception that it was already a pressing problem.

"I really don't see a lot of problems," he said. "I have one neighbor who feels there's a lot of crime out there."

Though many of the conclusions seemed like common sense, most of the participants said they saw the meeting -- held Friday evening and most of yesterday at the Columbia Inn -- as a valuable way to connect community leaders to help them forestall future problems.

"There's a huge benefit, a resource, getting to meet a lot of people," said Helen Weems, president of the Harper's Glen Town House Association.

Others were already thinking about future meetings.

Helen Sutusky, a former member of the Harper's Choice Village Board, agreed: "We need to have a follow-up, take this to the community. We need to take this back, do something with it, not just put the notebooks on the shelf."

Meeting leaders from the consortium divided the participants into four groups that worked on small tasks and then shared their information with each other.

Loitering a problem

One group's discussion centered on perceived and actual problems facing the village. Group members first listed loitering, then illicit drugs as real problems, then focused on how people view the village. The perception of ills, they said, was the biggest problem facing the community.

At another table, residents and leaders decided that people hanging out at the village center was a larger issue.

Another group decided something needed to be done about young men loitering at the Abbott House apartment building.

Earlier, participants listened to experts talk about "communication, collaboration, cooperation and consensus."

List of goals, leaders

They also created lists of community leaders and goals.

They drew colorful pictures with the sun, grassy parks, smiling stick-figures of people and "happy clouds" -- an exercise to show what a beautiful place Harper's Choice could be.

Fred Wilson, program coordinator for the Police Foundation -- a member of the consortium -- said he hoped participants would work together again.

"This isn't designed to solve the problems," he said. "This is just a start."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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