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In Harford Co., residents pay their own way for safe streets

The Baltimore Sun

On a typical day in First Harford Square, children ride bikes and mothers push strollers to the playground, amid grassy hills and well-kept lawns.

But at night, residents say, their Edgewood neighborhood often takes a turn for the worse. Teenagers have been known to toss bricks and rocks at passing cars, slash tires and spray red paint on parked cars.

Some incidents are far worse: This month, a woman was pistol-whipped while walking her dog. Earlier in the summer, a teenage girl working at the neighborhood pool was beaten by a group of teens who climbed the fence. And nearly three years ago, a cabdriver and father of nine was gunned down in a gang initiation.

Frustrated with the police response, the residents in this southeastern Harford County community have hired security guards who conduct foot patrols each night. The neighborhood association has paid nearly $75,000 this summer for the patrols, while complaining that county government has ignored the residents' plight.

Private security is a familiar sight in more affluent neighborhoods, including Guilford in Baltimore and the Russett Community and South River Landing in Anne Arundel County. But it's much less prevalent in communities like First Harford Square, a modest neighborhood of about 600 pastel two-story townhouses clustered around 23 cul-de-sacs. The median household income is about $47,011, according to the 2000 census.

"It's not going to be very common in a less affluent community, even if you have a homeowners association," said James Gaines, a research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M; University. The homeowners group "may not have enough in assessments or fees or ways to raise revenues to pay for it."

First Harford Square has laid off two members of the maintenance staff to free up money for the patrols, said Jeanette Muehleisen, vice president of the association.

"We're just trying to budget it in," she said. "It's a big worry for everyone."

Homeowners associations lacking the means to hire private security typically pursue other strategies, such as organizing neighborhood watches or working with local police to increase patrols, Gaines said.

"For any homeowner association, it comes down to economics," said Dave Caplan, principal of Community Association Management, a Stevenson company that manages homeowner and condominium association properties. "You have to see if you can afford the level of security. Security is never cheap and it never comes with a guarantee."

The monthly fee is $58.60 a month per household in First Harford Square. Muehleisen says they had to take out a line of credit to help pay for security this summer and estimates that the association won't be able to afford the service after this year.

The attack at the pool was the event that prompted residents to hire Superior Protective Services of Aberdeen. Each evening, two armed guards begin patrols in First Harford Square. The guards are off-duty Baltimore police officers or student resource officers from the school system who work shifts of six to eight hours every night, sporting black shorts and T-shirts marked "security."

The guards keep a daily log and write an incident report if something occurs during their shift patrolling the neighborhood, which covers almost 30 acres.

"Some nights it's quiet, and some nights it's not," said Michael Gordon, a Baltimore school police officer, as he and his partner made their rounds through the neighborhood on a recent night.

When the guards see a suspicious person, they approach and ask for ID. While they do not have the authority to make arrests, the guards can handcuff a person and detain them until police arrive.

On Wednesday, the guards caught two teenagers suspected in the armed robbery of a pizza delivery man. The guards phoned state troopers, who arrived and arrested the suspects, ages 15 and 16, charging them with robbery, theft and assault.

"It's not frequent that we have to call them," said Andre Alston, president of Superior Protective Services. "Our presence is a deterrence more than anything. With minor incidents, we do what we have to do. If something looks suspicious, we ask for their ID and ask them to leave."

The 3-year-old company has commercial clients such as car dealerships and office buildings in Baltimore city and county. But First Harford Square is its only residential customer.

Association leaders say the patrols have been effective, though the strategy has created new challenges.

"We do believe there's less crime," said Mark Franz, operations manager for the association. "At the same time, the street thugs have ramped up their aggressiveness in spite of security. Almost like it's a challenge, they realize security is here, and they're on the watch for it."

Residents point to a nearby patch of woods as a key part of the crime problem. The strip of towering pines, oaks and maples sits between First Harford Square and Windsor Valley. Residents say some teenagers from Windsor Valley wreak havoc in their neighborhood then flee into the woods.

"Kids come through ... in groups and do damage and get out real quick," Gordon said. "They bust windows of people's houses -- grab a brick and bust some windows."

County officials say the residents unfairly underestimate the law enforcement response. They say they have bolstered crime-fighting efforts in Edgewood by assigning more deputies to the area and making plans to build a bigger precinct. Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said deputies occasionally conduct foot and bicycle patrols in First Harford Square.

"Harford Square is in an area that has a large number of resources from the sheriff's office," Bane said. "When there are indications that things are out of control, it gets a lot of attention."

Bane has scheduled a meeting Oct. 3 with the neighborhood association.

"If they have concerns with the sheriff's office, I want to address those concerns," Bane said. "Somewhere, there's some feeling of disconnect. I'm going to do what I can to assure them -- whether they have a security force or not."

The sheriff's office has a presence in Windsor Valley, with anti-gang units occupying two townhouses in the development. The locations are not staffed around the clock.

Meanwhile, with the its funds dwindling, the association has turned to the county for help, seeking grants and approaching the County Council.

"We're running out of money," said Jan Whitmore, president of the association. "We can't get anyone to help us. We're just struggling to hold on to what we have and decrease the crime."

After filing three vandalism claims for her house and her car, Whitmore said her insurance company advised her to move.

"We're trying to fight to gain control," she said "It's a losing battle."

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