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Cause for optimism in Cherry Hill

The Baltimore Sun

A year ago, three teenage boys sitting on a porch here were shot.

A 14-year-old died, becoming one of Baltimore's youngest homicide victims of the year and setting the community of Cherry Hill -- which includes the city's largest public housing development-- on edge.

Summit meetings and citizen patrols followed. The family of brothers wounded in the shooting moved out.

The mother of Bernard Simon, the boy who was killed, also left. She and others declared Cherry Hill unsafe. It was, they said, home to rival youth gangs and had few resources for its young people.

Nearly a year later, the southern Baltimore neighborhood is an anomaly in a city that has, overall, experienced homicides and nonfatal shootings in a quantity unseen this decade.

Homicides in Cherry Hill are down 50 percent, from eight last year at this time, to four as of Nov. 17, according to Maj. Michael McDonald of the Southern District. Nonfatal shootings are down 75 percent, from 28 last year at this time, to seven so far this year, said McDonald.

"We knew who many of the bad guys were in Cherry Hill; many of them were known violent offenders," says McDonald. "It really just went back to policing 101. We went after every violent offender in Cherry Hill.

"[Not long] afterward we started seeing our known offenders turn up in other parts of the city -- along Pennsylvania Avenue, in Eastern Baltimore. We drove them out of Cherry Hill.

"We consider this a pretty big success."

Cherry Hill has a long history of on-again, off-again violence, fueled by drug turf wars and rival youth gangs concentrated in the large public housing complexes usually named by geographic location.

In the 1990s the problems stemmed from home-grown gangs, including the notorious Veronica Avenue Boys, or VA Boys, and the Round Road Boys. In more recent years, the gangs have coined themselves Up the Hill, Hillside and Coppin Court.

The community's insulated and unusual geography for Baltimore -- bounded by water and the railroad tracks -- ensure that most of the crime is driven by residents rather than outsiders, says McDonald.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III attributes the drop in shootings and nonfatal shootings this year to smart policing as well a larger number of evictions by the city's Housing Authority, greater community engagement and the presence of Towson University in both the schools and community.

"It's a collaborative effort and a combination of a ton of these factors," says Bealefeld. "I'd say the gains probably far outpace, in term of violence reduction, any other public housing community in Baltimore. Certainly it was a big undertaking in terms of historic scale. Over the years ... there usually are a considerable number of homicides and nonfatal shootings in that public housing area."

Cherry Hill, Bealefeld says, will likely be used as a model for how to best combat crime in public housing developments, areas often prone to crime. "There's a lot of discussion on how best to police public housing communities," he says. "We are looking to use that model since we've had such good results with it in Cherry Hill."

For the first time this year, Cherry Hill's officers were unified under McDonald's command, rather than split between the Southern District and the public housing unit.

The city's Housing Authority Lease Enforcement Unit has stepped up the eviction of families who have members or visitors with criminal arrests. In 2005 eight families in Cherry Hill were evicted. That number jumped to 37 families last year and more than 50 so far this year.

And Towson University's extensive involvement in the Cherry Hill schools and community, which includes tutors in classrooms and future plans for adult education opportunities, continues to grow.

Across Cherry Hill, there is a palpable sense of relief, a feeling that perhaps the community finally has a handle on crime.

From residents in the public housing development to those in the private housing areas to those who travel to the community for work, the difference is noticeable.

Shirley Foulks, tenant council president of Cherry Hill Homes, the public housing development, says this year has been among the best since she moved here in 1969.

The youth gangs are "not as loud" this year, she says. "They might have gotten some of the worst ones off the street."

Foulks, 57, runs an after-school program and summer camp in the community. "There's a lot of good things going on here," she says. "We have some good children in Cherry Hill."

Cleoda Walker, co-chairman of the public safety community, says engaged community members have turned out at safety walks, participated in "Nosey neighbor" campaigns and come to training sessions on how to not be a victim.

Walker, 66, now lives outside of the public housing development where she grew up, but still within Cherry Hill. "Homeowners and renters are coming together to actively fight crime," says Walker. "The churches are getting more active, taking the message to the streets."

At the Created for So Much More Worship Center, Bishop Willard E. Saunders Jr. says it's business as usual for his congregation, which conducts regular "prayer walks" at crime hot spots and lunchtime Bible sessions at the food court in the shopping center.

"A lot of the crime we saw coming into Cherry Hill was from people who were moving into Cherry Hill public housing from other areas, so they were shifting problems here," says Saunders. "A lot of the people have been locked up or moved out."

For others, addressing the sources of crime is as much part of the solution as attacking the crime itself.

"When we think of urban violence we think of the violence itself, we don't automatically think of the cause of the violence -- the apathy, the despair, the economic influences, the family influences," says the Rev. Keith Paige, president of the Cherry Hill Ministerial Alliance.

The Towson University partnership has been helpful in addressing the systemic problems behind violence, he says. "Basically we're talking about giving young people the love that they need so that they will not be prone to the violence ... that makes the gang culture."

Cathy McClain, executive director of the Cherry Hill Trust, a nonprofit that does work in the community, says less crime means the community can work on other issues.

"We don't have the sirens screaming up and down the streets as we used to have," she says. "So people are free to concentrate on other areas like economic development and housing -- those kinds of things we wouldn't be able to concentrate on if crime was a problem."

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