Turning A Neighborhood Around: It’s Possible, Just Not Easy

Langley Park ain’t what it used to be. It’s barely what it still is. According to everyone on the PG force, Langley used to be one of the county’s major open-air drug markets. It had shootings, dead people, chases, all that stuff. Now, as far as I can tell, it’s a police parking lot.

I was riding with Corporal Mark Elie, of the violence-abatement outfit. A lot of departments have similar units. The idea is that you saturate a violent neighborhood with cops, in this case largely guys working overtime, and the violence stops. It works. If it worked any better, I’d be looking for a new job.

Langley is mostly Hispanic, a region of low brick apartments that look like public housing but, in fact, are privately owned. People walk around, maybe sit on porches, but the males don’t cluster in drug-dealer crowds. Elie drove through again and again. In the first half hour we passed squad car after squad car, some parked, some not. Elie began apologizing.

“This used to be a real zoo, Fred. You could see fifteen guys who needed to be picked up on each side of the block. I guess it’s kind of quiet now?.”

Cops want to stop crime, but they figure that if a reporter comes out to ride with them, they ought to be good hosts, and provide something to write about.

After an hour I said philosophically, “Well, there’s still time to find some nuclear terrorists maybe.”

“I don’t know. It didn’t used to be this way. Really.”

A radio call came, guys doing drugs in a parking lot. It was almost the night’s only call. Two police cars pulled up to four Hispanic guys who in fact were drinking beer, not using drugs. They were your basic fully adult, five-foot-four Central American guys. Their kids will be six-one. A gringo diet does wonders. Elie approached and said something resembling, “OK, guys, looks like we’re drinking beer, huh?”

They agreed that they were. The cops ran their IDs. Nothing. A Puerto Rican officer named Paul Campbell (good Hispanic name, I thought) chatted with them to see what the story was. There wasn’t a story. They were just drinking beer. A settlement was negotiated. If they would pick up all the beer bottles, a drinking-in-public ticket wouldn’t be necessary. The idea suited everybody.

“These people aren’t welfare cases,” Elie said as we left. “Come here at six in the morning and they’re all going to work. I think they get stuck in low-paying jobs, though, and they get frustrated.”

No education, marginal English, no training. That’ll do it every time.

Hassling guys for a six-pack of brew may seem trivial, but it isn’t. The only practical way to clean up a bad region is, first, to hassle the drug-dealers into submission. No police chief would use the word “hassle,” but every street cop knows that is exactly what it is. Take them to jail for trespassing, for drinking. Park where the dealing goes on and conspicuously watch, ticket them for running stop signs, spitting on the sidewalk. Don’t give the bad guys an inch of slack.

“It’s whether you’re going to let a few jerks spoil the whole neighborhood,” Elie said.

Very shortly, a change occurs. The lowlifes don’t control the streets any more. And this is exactly what is at stake: Who is in control. Then the lowlifes miraculously disappear. Then the kids come out and play again, because their mothers know they aren’t going to get caught in a cross-fire.

“Right now we’re just doing maintenance,” Elie said. “If we left, things would be back where they were in no time.”

Part of maintenance is not letting guys drink in public. If you let four do it tonight, fifty will do it tomorrow night, fights will break out, and the dealers will use the chaos as camouflage and move back in. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fifty-dollar ticket to an employed guy who can’t afford it and whose only sin is a forty-ounce Colt .45. So you check their IDs, get the point across, tell them, hey, guys, do it in your living room next time, and let it go at that.

The most serious crime of the night was an illegal right-hand turn. Signs have been put up to make it difficult for outside drug buyers to cruise the neighborhood. This guy ignored one of them. Elie gave him a warning ticket. The issue is control, not punishment. Slow night. We left.

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