First, there’s the story of Dave Cook. Originally from Boston, he would travel to New York to see bands perform because of his job in the music business. The walk to see those bands required traveling through crime-ridden neighborhoods, so he would often carry a gun with him, even though he knew it was illegal.
“I thought my life was worth something,” Cook said.
These days, and for the last nine years, he lives on East All Saints Street in Frederick. He fears that the similarities between the neighborhoods he used to frequent in New York and a handful of neighborhoods in Frederick are piling up.
“I heard someone say that we’re at a point where things could go one way or another,” he said recently about his current hometown’s struggle with crime related to homelessness and addiction. “We’ve reached that point.”
Then, there’s Therese Pelicano. She moved to Frederick about 12 years ago after what she called a personal tragedy. She was once thrilled with what she saw in the city, living in Maxwell Place alongside people she deemed “wonderful.” But eventually things took a turn when she became “bombarded” by people outside her apartment using drugs. She would call the police, though they weren’t much help, she said.
“It has deteriorated over those 12 years and it made me really sad that on September 16th of this year, I moved out of that building,” she explained. “The main reason is because of what’s going on outside.
“My 14-year-old grandson said to me, ‘I love to come see you, but I don’t like to come to your house anymore.’”
She then paused, doing her best to fight back tears.
“And that broke my heart.”
Stories like those are at the core of why the Downtown Safety and Services Initiative was launched some 12 months ago with preliminary discussions all over the city. A community initiative aimed at jump-starting dialogue regarding “a common vision for prosperity in Frederick,” the plan is led in part by Peter Couchman, director of community benefit projects for the Ausherman Family Foundation, and Gayon Sampson, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor’s executive assistant.
The framework of DSSI, according to Couchman, is based on work from five committees. A sixth committee, made up of the chairs from the five committees, then steers the course to ensure meetings are happening, ideas are hatched and problems are confronted.
Members of the Frederick Police Department sit on several of the initiative’s subcommittees, including Chief Ed Hargis, who was tapped to help lead an ambassador program.
One of the focuses of the ambassador program will be to examine the possibility of bringing a practice to Frederick that is used by some other cities with larger downtown districts. The idea would be to contract with a private security or similar agency to post “ambassadors” in key downtown locations to help lead visitors to the city who might be unfamiliar with the area, Hargis said.
While not directly related to public safety, Hargis said he could see immediate advantages for the police if such a program were implemented in downtown Frederick.
“These are the types of people who can provide some of that tourism information, and I figure that will end up being a lot of what they do. But they can also serve as additional eyes and ears for the police department in terms of notifying us of possible public safety issues as well,” Hargis suggested. “It’s always a possibility to look at that type of program, and in some cities there’s not only an ambassador program, but also a downtown maintenance program, so there are other possibilities to explore as well.”
Beyond the formation of the committees, however, is perhaps the most important element of the equation: the public.
“Whether you’re serving on a committee or not, you have the opportunity to engage and join the discussion,” Couchman said recently. “At the end of the day, the overall goal of DSSI is to move the needle on the issues that were raised by the community.”
And on the first Tuesday in October, the community spoke about those issues.
Engaging. Destination. Handsome. Diverse. Fun.
Those were just a few of the words used by members of the community to describe Frederick at DSSI’s first public meeting on Oct. 1. Held at New Spire Stages, the gathering was the first time leaders of the organization heard feedback come directly from city residents in a public forum.
After a quick overview of the program, as well as introductions of the committee chairs, the room was divided into pockets of people seated at tables around the venue’s theater. From there, committee leaders guided conversations aimed at gathering their thoughts on the city where they live.
The first five minutes were devoted to brainstorming key words that describe downtown Frederick. That morphed into discussions about the vision for the future of the city and how everyone can work together to achieve those visions. From there, the results from each table were shared with the rest of the room. Those words — engaging, destination, handsome, diverse and fun — were used to describe downtown in the early stages of the conversations.
With about 45 minutes left in the meeting, the floor was open for anyone to speak. Residents passed a microphone around, as they vented their frustrations and concerns in the downtown area.
At the center of residents’ concerns was homelessness and crime, most poignantly illustrated through the stories shared by Pelicano and Cook. Their frustrations were mostly directed at Mike Spurrier, director of the Frederick Community Action Agency, who this past week was given about a month to finish his duties on the job before being replaced in favor of a different vision for the city program.
Cook said the mayor’s call was the right one. He added that the crimes committed downtown are reaching a fever pitch that can’t be ignored. He cited friends who live in Boston to whom he talks regularly and they talk about always feeling safe in the city.
“Right now, I can’t say that about Frederick,” Cook said.
At the meeting, Spurrier did his best to answer questions and help shed light on both issues, but the dialogue turned away from brainstorming in favor of more pointed speech, with one resident concluding his questioning of why Mayor O’Connor, who weeks later would make the decision to oust Spurrier, wasn’t in attendance by apologizing for “standing on his soapbox,” before adding, “but now I feel better.”
Still, moments like that were what Couchman and Sampson said they were looking for when they stepped to the front of the initiative. A little more than a week before the meeting, Sampson explained how the work his group had done beforehand dictated the atmosphere of such a forum.
“We went out and listened to the community,” he said. “So, this is organic; this is straight from the community. We were able to go on a listening tour to listen to what folks want, so this? This is strictly from the community.”
A factual approach
Lt. Paul Beliveau, who commands the Frederick Police Department’s Special Operations Division, agreed that listening to the public’s concerns and respecting their perceptions is important, but the department bases its approach on facts.
“We don’t base our success or lack of success on somebody’s individual perception, because that is going to be completely skewed by your own experiences,” Beliveau said. “You may live downtown or have a business downtown and never experience any crime, and your perception is great. But then you could have, one street over, somebody who could have a persistent issue that we’re trying to solve and it could be challenging, and they may think that crime is absolutely horrible. Neither one is completely accurate.”
Overall, part one crimes, which include homicide, manslaughter, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have decreased by 12 percent from January through August 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to the department’s statistics.
That said, many of the issues the police department sees specifically in the downtown area are not considered part one crimes, Beliveau said.
“Some of the things we see most often are the possession of spice or synthetic cannabinoids; that’s something we’ve been trying to address and deal with more effectively. You generally see alcohol violations downtown more, because there are more bars downtown, but also in the parks and so forth,” the lieutenant said.
While violent crime may be down, data provided to The Frederick News-Post indicate that total crime along Carroll Creek, South Street and All Saints Street has increased. Frederick police had made 361 arrests in that area as of July 30. That’s an increase of nearly 32 percent from the 272 arrests made in all of 2018.
Violent crimes do happen downtown. Four people were shot outside a bar in the 600 block of North Market Street early on Aug. 31, followed by a stabbing at Carroll Creek Linear Park on Sept. 3 and a second nonfatal shooting in the 400 block of North Market on Sept. 8.
Regardless of the crime, the police department recognizes the unique enforcement needs of downtown, which has its own special unit, the Directed Patrol Team, whose primary focus is to address crime and quality-of-life issues there, Beliveau said.
“The officers are constantly working on crime that is reported, complaints that we get from citizens and business owners, and they use those reports to drive their operations and their enforcements, so their schedules, their shifts and operational strategies are all based on that data,” Beliveau said.
The department tries to supplement its enforcement activities by addressing factors that lead to crime whenever they can, such as by installing lighting or removing bushes from areas to discourage illegal activity by increasing visibility, the lieutenant said.
Opportunities are also available for interested parties to partner with the department outside of generating reports. For example, residents and businesses can register with the department’s Technology and Services Division if they have surveillance cameras or doorbell cameras.
“So if there’s a robbery, we can go down there and determine who has cameras in the geographical area that may have potentially caught the crime or obtained some evidence and we can request that video footage,” Beliveau said. “So again, it’s not just us going in and making arrests that solves problems. That’s just one component of how we solve problems and crime.”
Beliveau himself sits on the DSSI’s safety and security subcommittee, as an example of another partnership the department has embraced.
Listening is key
Two days after the initial public meeting, Couchman and Sampson were sitting along Carroll Creek, reflecting on the first steps in a marathon that never had any chance of being a sprint. They learned a lot from the first gathering, they said, and despite the mild devolution of where the dialogue eventually went, they saw it all as encouraging steps toward their ultimate goal of continuing to grow Frederick’s prosperity.
“I was psyched with the turnout,” Couchman noted with a wide smile, adding that about 120 people attended the event while he was expecting the number to be closer to 30. “It shows how important the issues we are talking about are to the community. I think it’s important to be able to give a platform to people who need to express their opinions.”
Couchman said he wasn’t sure if the open forum portion of the evening will return for the next meeting, but it’s not because of how things went at the previous meeting; rather, it will come down to what the steering committee thinks is the best approach. As for when that next meeting might come, Couchman was quick to point out that it could be several months.
“We want to reassure the community that we’re working on things,” Sampson said. “So it’s not productive to meet just to meet. We want to give them actual updates that are meaningful.”
Even so, Couchman and Sampson agreed that DSSI is off to a promising start. There’s a lot left to accomplish, they say, but they know that in its current stage, the most important aspect of success is learning.
“Being our first public meeting, of course we are going to learn things from the process,” Couchman said. “It was an opportunity for us to introduce who we were, engage for the first time, take the temperature of the community and gauge where the comments are coming from so that we can direct our own efforts. That helps inform us.”
“The key word for me is just listen,” Sampson added as he stood up from the brick wall on which he’d been sitting.
“‘Listen,’” he said. “That was the key word for me, for the entire time we were together.”