A reputation for becoming crime-ridden — whether justified or not — can be a death knell for a neighborhood.
At a community meeting recently, city officials heard from some residents of the south end of downtown Frederick who said that is exactly what is happening. They believe that street crime is increasing, and they want the city to stop it.
The city’s crime reports generally do not support the perception that those folks have, but as in so many things, a growing perception can spawn reality. And we don’t want that to happen in our city.
That is why it is heartening to see some good corporate groups and city officials working to address the perception problem in a wide-ranging initiative called the Downtown Safety and Services Initiative.
The group’s leaders are Peter Couchman, director of community benefit projects for the Ausherman Family Foundation, and Gayon Sampson, executive assistant to Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor.
They have created five committees to focus on various issues. Earlier this month, the group did a presentation to the community, to discuss what they have learned so far. More than 100 people turned out, and many were not happy.
At the center of residents’ concerns were homelessness and crime, and many directed their frustration at Mike Spurrier, executive director of the Frederick Community Action Agency. Spurrier, who has run the agency for more than 30 years, was fired by the mayor less than two weeks after the meeting and given 28 days to wrap things up.
The FCAA’s headquarters is at 100 S. Market St., in the heart of the area giving rise to the complaints about crime. In an email to his supporters, Spurrier summarized the feeling of people at the meeting:
“1) Residents in the south end are concerned (perhaps fed up) with quality of life crimes such as drinking in public, open drug use, public urination, loitering, littering and even trespassing; and 2) many people want to relocate the FCAA out of downtown.”
Dave Cook, one of those who spoke, said the mayor’s call was the right one. He added that the crimes committed downtown are reaching a fever pitch. He said his friends who live in Boston tell him they always feel safe in their city, but “Right now, I can’t say that about Frederick.”
Lt. Paul Beliveau, who commands the Frederick Police Department’s Special Operations Division, told The News-Post that the residents’ complaints are in some measure based on a misperception.
“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.”
Serious crime, including homicide, manslaughter, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, has decreased by 12 percent from January through August 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to the department’s statistics.
But most of what the public is complaining about does not constitute that serious crime. They are talking about druggies and drunks.
Crime data provided to The News-Post show that police have made 361 arrests this year around Carroll Creek and All Saints Street, as of July 30. In all of 2018, 272 arrests were made. That is a huge jump, which may indicate more crime or it may indicate stricter enforcement by police.
The department has created a special unit, the Directed Patrol Team, to focus on crime and quality-of-life issues downtown, Beliveau said.
Reflecting on the issues after the meeting, Sampson showed he is aware of what the O’Connor administration is facing: strong pressure to correct the problems of safety downtown, both the reality and the perception.
“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.”
He is absolutely correct. Along with other such issues facing the city, including transportation problems and blight both downtown and in other neighborhoods, the administration will be judged on the results it achieves, not on the awareness it shows.