Building blocks of trust in city

The Baltimore Sun

Teon Jefferson, 8, stood on his West Fairmount Avenue porch in the late-afternoon summer swelter. Deborah A. Owens, one of Baltimore's deputy police commissioners, walked over and noticed gang signals flashing from his small hands.

"Police!" he cried as she approached in uniform. Owens picked up a football lying in the yard and tossed it to the boy.

"Go long!"

After a few passes and an unsuccessful attempt to rush the officer, Owens moved on, leaving the boy and his family laughing.

"If I spend 10 minutes tossing a ball with that kid every day, maybe he'll grow up to trust us," Owens said as she walked away.

That's one of the main ideas behind Adopt-A-Block, one of Mayor Sheila Dixon's newest crime programs that Owens started this summer. The initiative is another example of a gradual shift away from so-called zero-tolerance policies of past administrations and toward more community-oriented policing.

Owens said she wants to combat the widespread mistrust of police in a city with rising homicide numbers and a falling reputation. To date, 27 of the city's most problematic blocks have been "adopted" by officers, who are required to spend an hour each day patrolling on foot.

This new policing strategy, one of many implemented in the past several months, is coupled with tougher law enforcement initiatives, such as Safe Zones, in which officers barricade streets in neighborhoods with serious drug problems. Dixon, who is running for a full term as mayor in next month's election, has also called for crackdowns on guns, gangs and violent offenders.

Paul M. Blair Jr., the president of the city's police union, said the initiatives send a mixed message, both to officers on the street and to the public. "You can't in one week be held accountable for crime where you're supposed to lock everybody up, and then the next week adopt the same block," Blair said.

Blair said the force is too thinly staffed to implement so many ideas. "If the officers are running from call to call because they're very busy, then they're not going to have time to get out of their car and talk to citizens," Blair said. "It's a good feel-good thing for election time." Last month, the city police union endorsed Dixon's challenger, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., in the race for mayor.

But for some city officials and police like Owens, the Adopt-A-Block program is a small but integral piece of a broader crime-fighting strategy, one that is supposed to incorporate a hard edge and a soft touch, a theme of so-called community policing, but more a throwback to the days of the old-fashioned, nightstick-twirling beat officer.

"I'm 67 years old," said Fairmount Street resident Charles Miller. "I haven't seen police walking the block on foot for many a year."

As Owens strolls down the street dotted with small groups chatting outdoors, there is a lot of feel-good in the air. She stops to pet dogs and talk about gardens. Sometimes she sits with residents and drinks lemonade or iced tea. And she encourages other block-adopting officers to patrol the same way.

"One of the first things I told them is, 'I don't want you to wear a hat,'" she said. "'You're still a cop, but I want people to see you as people. At the same time, if you see 20 kids dealing drugs on the corner, you have to do something about that, too.'"

The officers help in other ways. If they notice trash or vandalism, they get it cleaned up. They take complaints about loud music and requests for tree trimming, making themselves known as the people to call with questions or issues.

Owens, who last month was promoted from chief of patrol to lead the administrative side the department, watches over the 2700 block of West Fairmount Ave., which she has co-adopted with Officer Deborah Young.

Their block was the first to be adopted, and to launch the program, Dixon went door to door with the officers on a hot afternoon in late May. About a month into her regular patrols, residents became outraged about an arrest in which they thought police had behaved too harshly. By then, Owens knew which residents she could ask to calm the community down before she brought the district commander over to smooth things out, she said.

"It was an issue that could have turned into a potentially violent situation," she said.

Adopt-A-Block officers also step up police presence in some of the city's most troubled areas.

"We love it," Miller said. "When they pop up anytime, and it's unexpected. ... It takes away that courage that the drug dealers and the drug pushers have."

The program is funded by a state grant that pays for things like officers' business cards, neighborhood cleanup and even food for block parties, as Owens told residents on her recent patrol.

Some of the 27 blocks in the program have bad records with crime, drugs and gangs. In others, the issues seem less grim, but are often seen as precursors for more serious crime: loitering, vacant houses and a lack of community involvement.

Each block is adopted for three months, Owens said, but after a block's time is up, its officer will still check in on it regularly. The plan is to keep going until every block in the city has been adopted.

At the beginning of each block's adoption period, residents are surveyed on their thoughts about the police and city government. Six months later, a similar survey is given to check for changes of opinion.

The program has not been operating long enough to track its effectiveness, Owens said. But Owens and Fairmount Avenue residents agreed that crime and loitering have seemed to drop during the adoption period.

The Fairmount Avenue block, a comparatively benign stretch in a drug-riddled neighborhood, contains several vacant houses that are being rehabilitated. The construction brings in noise and trash complaints, and drug dealers use the empty dwellings as hideouts, residents said. A liquor store on the corner attracts loiterers and more dealers, Owens said.

"This is a community that begged for this," she said. "Of course, now their gripe is that we've just pushed crime to the next block.

"It seems a lot easier on paper or in theory than it is in practice," Owens said. "There's still a lot of this community that won't talk to us."

Young said Adopt-A-Block has opened her eyes to the negative police perception that many officers say exists citywide. "I didn't realize how deeply ingrained it was until I got out there and started walking," she said.

Blair, the police union president, said that years of arresting people for nuisance crimes - the heart of a zero-tolerance policy - eroded community trust in police.

"After doing that for two years, you burn a lot of those bridges in the neighborhood," he said. "A lot of people don't want to hug every police officer in those neighborhoods. It's not something that can be done in 50 days, 60 days. It just takes time. ... It takes years for a police officer to build trust on a regular patrol."

Some Fairmount Avenue residents have the opposite concern: They say that the program has calmed their block down and are worried at the thought of losing it in a month.

"Once they stop presenting themselves, it's going to go back to the way it was before," said Miller.

"If you're not monitoring it, the next morning the kids are on the street," said neighbor David Reeder, 53. "I'm not asking for police to be here every day, just now and then."

Owens' replacement as chief of patrol, Lt. Col. John P. Skinner, said he will keep the program.

"I think it's a great way for the police and the community to work together to solve the various issues in specific areas," Skinner said. "I don't think there's any simple solution to any crime problem or violence problem."

alia.malik@baltsun.com

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