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Standing-room only for high-profile crime forum

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BY MIKE PERSLEY

A recent string of burglaries on Sycamore Avenue where the criminals are thought to have escaped into jurisdictions bordering Takoma Park brought together the police chiefs of eight different territories for a high-profile public meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 25.

An estimated 175 people, mostly Takoma Park residents, but including several local state, county, and city politicians, residents of near-by jurisdictions, and law-enforcement officers, filled the city auditorium seats or stood at the back.

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The meeting was a chance for law enforcement and the public to discuss ways in which communication by police across jurisdictions can help reduce the stream of violence that has occurred in Takoma Park over the last year.

According to the Takoma Park police, there were 17 burglaries in the Sycamore Avenue area during the first nine months of 2013, more than three times the number from 2012.

The burglaries escalated to a carjacking when on January 14, Char Serwa, walking to her front door after returning from work, had a gun pointed at her head by a man demanding her purse, keys, and cellphone.

The crime produced an outcry from residents of the area demanding that the police do more to stop the violence.

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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot on the right, next toTakoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams at the podium

Their anger caught the attention of County Comptroller Peter Franchot, who himself lives on Sycamore Avenue and has had his home burglarized twice in the past 18 months.

Franchot then organized the meeting, inviting the police chiefs from Prince George’s and Montgomery County, the District of Columbia, Washington Transit Authority, Montgomery Park, the University of Maryland campus police, and the Maryland state troopers.

“Back then I was obviously pretty angry that complete strangers were breaking into my house, rummaging through my belongings, stealing things that were valuable,” Franchot told a packed auditorium at the Takoma Park community center as he opened the meeting. “I don’t have that anger anymore, but those memories that we have are never restored by some insurance policy.”

Franchot opened things up to members of the public.

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Jen Ujifusa was one of a number of city crime victims who spoke at the meeting.

Jen Ujifusa told the story of how after walking home from feeding a nearby friend’s cat on January 11, a car pulled up and dropped off a man that pulled a gun on her asking for her purse.

“I’ve never had a gun pointed at me before,” she said. “I never want it to happen again, and I don’t want it to happen to these people”

Ujifusa said that the initial police response was good, but after watching the crimes continue, she began to question whether they were doing everything they could to stop them.

“The protection that I expected for myself and for my community following this trauma never seemed to materialize,” she said. “What I want to know is if visible, cross-jurisdictional enforcement would have helped?”

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Peter Marra gives white paper presentation by Sycamore Ave. residents’ group.

Afterward Peter Marra gave a power-point presentation with suggestions for the police on how they could deter crime from coming into Takoma Park from surrounding areas.

Marra is part of the original group of Sycamore Avenue residents that spoke out, and with the others produced a 12-page report that formed the outline for his presentation.

According to Marra, burglaries in Takoma Park increased by 54 percent from 2012 to 2013, and by over three-hundred percent on Sycamore Avenue, but that it’s likely that the crime occurring on the street is just a new “hot-spot” that will move to other areas of the city over time.

“What that means is that this is not a Sycamore Avenue problem, this is a Takoma Park problem,” he said.

The group’s suggestions included adding surveillance cameras, encouraging citizens to buy their own security cameras, additional automated license plate readers, street closures that change the patterns by which criminals can escape, and cross-jurisdictional efforts between police forces.

After the presentation, Takoma Park police chief Alan Goldberg opened the police response by arguing that although criminals have become more transient and the region’s growth has blurred the lines between regions, communication between police jurisdictions has actually helped reduce crime in Takoma Park.

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Takoma Park police chief Alan Goldberg’s presentation included maps showing crime locations and “hot spots.”

Although there was a spike in burglaries in 2013, he said, it was only because 2012 was exceptionally low.

“That’s really not going to make people feel better,” he said, “but the reality was that was not the highest year.”

He displayed maps that showed crime is no higher in Takoma Park than surrounding jurisdictions, and that crime “hot-spots” tend to be business areas.

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Members of the public lined up to ask questions of the police-chief panel.

When a crime occurs in D.C., he said, “There’s a group of us that live by our phones basically 24/7 and
pass that information on immediately.”

Goldberg said that much of the technology is there for them to share information directly with other agencies, and to look at crime across jurisdictions.

Tools such as mobile data and computer aided dispatches are already in use and help police communicate across jurisdictions regularly. The Maryland State Police run a “fusion center” that tracks crime across the state and allows local departments to see where crimes occur anywhere in the region.

If anything needs to change, he argued, it’s the perception of officers who are not accustomed to viewing the entire region as their territory.

“That is a mindset change for officers who have done business the way they’ve done it for many years,” he said.

Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger also claimed that crime has gone down in the region, but, he said, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to let up.

“Folks who have been the victim of crime don’t feel safe, and that absolutely means that we have more work to do.”

Manger agreed, however, that communication between departments is “instant”.

“Everybody at this table talks on a regular basis,” he said, “The communication that we do makes the work we do seamless.”

Rather than focusing on jurisdictional issues, he argued, citizens should focus on other ways to help solve crimes.

“If you look at downtown Silver Spring, each business has a camera either inside or outside of their building,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many crimes that’s helped solve.”

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Prince George’s County police chief Mark Magaw speaks.

Prince George’s County police chief Mark Magaw said that his county’s crime rate has plummeted once other aspects of government became involved in crime prevention.

“I’m talking about social services, family services, even public services. Everybody has to be involved,” he said.

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Jen Ujifusa.

After the meeting, Marra and Ujifusa said they were disappointed with the police response.

“I mean, I think they listened and they cared,” said Marra, “but all of that stuff about license plate readers. I don’t think it’s going to change.”

Ujifusa said that she hopes the meeting will spawn more communication between the police and citizens, but that she didn’t come away overly confident.

“If we can get regular meetings with the police, that would be great,” she said. “But we’ll have to wait and see if they do it.”

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One of several politicians and political candidates who made an appearance was Montgomery County Executive Ike Legget, who made a closing statement.

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