Diana Bullock stood in the rain one morning last fall, staring at a shuttered house in her Columbia Park neighborhood. The house had long been a trouble spot, attracting squatters, people with junk to unload and addicts looking for a place to get high. But that day, a wrecking crew had come to make the house disappear for good.
Bullock and other members of the Columbia Park Civic Association had been working for years to get rid of the vacant house, which neighbors say was an eyesore for more than two decades. But the demolition became a reality through the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, a Prince George's County program aimed at improving safety by providing government resources and social services to residents in six key communities.
On Thursday, when county officials announced historic reductions in the crime rate in Prince George's, law enforcement leaders attributed much of the progress to the program. Focusing on the most troubled communities, they say, drove a drop in crime countywide.
Violent crime dropped 14 percent countywide in 2013, but it was down by about one-third more in neighborhoods included in the initiative, officials said. County homicides, many of which occur in initiative neighborhoods, were down 13 percent from 2012 and nearly 40 percent from 2010. There were 57 slayings in Prince George's last year, including one on federal property, a level it hasn't experienced since the mid-1980s.
"Like other jurisdictions, we have challenging areas — areas where we are dealing with limited access to health care, low school achievement levels, limited job opportunities," County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said Thursday. "Like other jurisdictions, these areas are at risk for higher crime, so for the last 18 months we have had a laser-like focus on these communities."
Homicides peaked at 161 in the county as recently as 2005, and officials in Prince George's say it is crucial to restore the county's crime-ridden image as they court major economic-development projects, such as the new FBI headquarters. The county says such projects as the Tanger Outlets at National Harbor and the planned MGM Resorts International casino are signs that people view Prince George's as a generally safe place.
The idea behind the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative: Find ways to reduce crime beyond putting more officers on the streets. The program sends in public works employees to repair infrastructure, social services workers to help repeat offenders break out of the cycle of crime, and — as in the case of Columbia Park — demolition crews to get rid of long-abandoned homes.
The initiative was born out of a 2011 summer crime program in which police used data to determine where it could most affect violent crime. The department not only deployed more patrols to five areas in the county based on the numbers but also worked to improve police relationships in those communities.
Neighborhoods in the summer initiative saw drops in violent crime ranging from about 10 to 23 percent, compared with about 12 percent countywide, authorities said. After the program's success, county officials expanded the effort, adding a neighborhood and recruiting additional government departments.
The six communities in the initiative — East Riverdale/Bladensburg, Langley Park, Glassmanor/Oxon Hill, Hillcrest Heights/Marlow Heights, Kentland/Palmer Park and Suitland/Coral Hills — are mostly inside the Capital Beltway, where the population is denser and many communities share the border with the District's most troubled areas.
County officials zeroed in on neighborhoods where crime rates, foreclosures and the number of public housing units were high and school test scores, school attendance rates and income levels were low. Looking at a variety of data reflects the emphasis on reducing crime by involving all applicable aspects of government.
"You can't arrest your way out of issues," Police Chief Mark Magaw said. "The entire government has to get involved."
For example, the county has hosted events to help repeat offenders get job training, food stamps, housing and other social services. If the government can help at-risk individuals get what they need to become independent and improve their lives, Magaw said, they're less likely to hurt others to take what they need.
But the program has flaws, some residents say.
"We've complained about lighting along Branch Avenue, but they're taking their time fixing it," said Johnnie Hooper, a member of the Hillcrest-Marlow Heights Civic Association.
Hooper also said he still worries about safety in his neighborhood, where a robbery occurred recently. A few weeks before that, one of his neighbors discovered a body on the ground.
And on New Year's Day — the day before officials held a news conference to announce the drop in crime — the county recorded its first two homicides of the year, in Clinton and New Carrollton.
Having two homicides — both suspected domestic cases — in one day is "still frustrating," Magaw said. But the chief said he is confident that police will close the cases quickly and continue to bring down the county's crime rate.
"We're not satisfied, and we are not done," Magaw said. "We are actually just getting started."
The way Bullock sees it, the program is paying off. During the fall demolition in Columbia Park, she and some neighbors applauded as construction equipment turned the shuttered house into a pile of dust and splintered wood.
"I wouldn't miss this for nothing unless I was on my deathbed," Bullock said. Then a giant claw from a construction truck plunged into the roof, tearing through the green house. "We're very, very happy," she said.
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