By Kevin O’Rourke
Germantown, like many large towns, is a collection of neighborhoods. Nobody knows a neighborhood better than the folks who live there. The Montgomery County Police Department has recently launched a new initiative to help neighborhoods deal with problem areas and individuals, and they are asking for help from residents to guide them.
Each of the six Montgomery County Police Districts will have its own District Community Action Team, or DCAT, which is a squad of five uniformed officers, a corporal and a sergeant who can, through community outreach, go into neighborhoods to address their particular issues.
The genesis of the DCAT is something that the MCPD rolled out a number of years ago, which was the Police Community Action Team, or PCAT, a countywide team that would go to different police districts and perform whatever specialized task the specific district required. For instance, when the PCAT was deployed in Bethesda, it would work on alcohol and DUI enforcement, or in Silver Spring it would proactively try to intercept and apprehend people committing street crimes.
The PCAT would complete a task in one district, and then move on to another deployment. Soon, the number of requests for a PCAT deployment from each district necessitated the need to for each district to have its own community action team. As a result, Police Chief Thomas Manger and County Executive Isaiah Leggett requested that the County Council include funds for a PCAT team for each police district in the annual police budget.
According to Germantown District Commander, Captain David Gillespie early versions of the District 5 DCAT team hit the streets in May but the team will begin rolling with its full complement of seven members this week.
DCAT differs other officers on patrol because they are not required to handle 911 calls. Of course they will if needed, but they are more utility infielders, rather than position players. They can move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the reported criminal activity in each community.
“The DCAT unit enables us to have a group of officers dedicated to handling community related issues,” said Gillespie. “Rather than have a group of officers go in there and just scoot everyone away, the DCAT can work with the community and the youth, or the people involved to a have a long term solution to the problem.” Gillespie says the DCAT will also be tied in to the school resource officers to have real impact in communities and neighborhoods.
According to Sergeant Jason Cokinos, who is in charge of the District 5 DCAT, “We are a uniformed group of officers that goes out into the community and to different hotspots. For example, if there is a lot of street robberies, or complaints of drug sales, or loitering, in one neighborhood, our team has the unique ability to go into a neighborhood and address quality of life issues and not be tied to the radio.”
Cokinos described the DCAT as a street crimes unit. “The guys that go out and get in the dirt at night in the most dangerous areas, where people don’t to want be, that’s where these teams are going.”
However, he is quick to point out that there is a strong community-relations aspect of the team. “Yes, we want to go out there and put handcuffs on bad guys, but we also want to partner with the community, in so much that citizens will call the station or email me, and I will pay attention to crime trends in neighborhood,” said Cokinos. “We use that relationship to guide where we go to take care of business. Our main focus is to partner with the community. We want the community to know about us. We want to know what problems the different communities may have, and we can then prioritize and build strategies to go into each neighborhood and take care of those problems,” he said.
“These teams in each district are here to stay. This isn’t a trial period, they are now a staple in our staffing,” said Gillespie. “I am thankful to the County Council and County Executive for funding the program because it is very important, and it is a great resource for the community. We want to get the word out to the community that these officers are here and it shows the commitment from the police department to the communities and the County’s commitment.”
Gillespie said, the Germantown DCAT has already had an impact. “Since they have been in existence, the enforcement piece has been tremendous as far as the quality of the arrests that they have made,” he said.
He pointed out three incidents where the DCAT unit has been instrumental in getting criminals off the streets.
Officers from DCAT saw people who the unit thought were involved drug activity. The team stopped the subjects in the area of Mateny Road and Eagles Roost Drive and found the gun during an arrest. “This is at least the third handgun that they have gotten off the street since May,” said Gillespie.
Another incident took place on Sept. 4, when DCAT was in the area of Clopper Road and Liberty Mill Road and observed suspicious activity, according to Gillespie. The team made a traffic-stop and observed some marijuana in plain view. An additional search of the vehicle revealed more marijuana and LSD, as well as a stolen laptop which, it turns out, was taken from a residential burglary in another district, along with an iPad that was taken in a burglary in Prince Georges County, and a second laptop that was taken from burglary of a Montgomery County school. “All three of the defendants in this incident were previously involved with another burglary pattern,” said Gillespie.
The DCAT was also responsible for the arrest of the juvenile suspect involved with the armed robbery of a 51-year-old cyclist who was robbed at gunpoint while riding on Waring Station Road near Middlebrook Road on Aug. 12.
“These are just three arrests in the last month that they’ve made, but the impact they’ve had in the community goes well beyond the criminal enforcement,” said Gillespie.
Cokinos said, “The bulk of what we do is drugs, but we also try to get illegal weapons and firearms, we serve warrants on people. If we see someone who is wanted we will take them down. We are a proactive street crimes team.”
He explained that the while DCAT will do some surveillance; it is not an undercover team. “We are in uniform, high visibility presence. We will deploy an officer in a covert capability as a forward scout to put an eye on any criminal activity, and then we will come in and swarm to take care of whatever issues the scout sees.”
Cokinos explained that while DCAT does a lot of drug enforcement, it is not a “drug unit.” “We are looking for all crimes. We will react to crime trends but we go out -- proactively to try to squash things before they turn into a bigger issue,” he said.
Both Cokinos and Gillespie stressed that DCAT and the many neighborhoods that make up Germantown must work together.
“While the DCAT is very enforcement focused, there is another aspect of the DCAT that is service related, and it has to do with reaching out to the community, attending community meetings, and hearing from the community as to what the issues are and developing a longer term solution,” said Gillespie.
Indeed, Sergeant Cokinos has been making the rounds at various homeowners and condo association meetings informing the residents of the DCAT’s commitment to cleaning up neighborhoods.
“If there is a neighborhood or association that would like me to come to their meeting and talk about our program and what we can do help, call the station and ask me and we will come,” he said, “We are glad to go to as many communities as will have us at their meetings.”
The team also can be granted permission from neighborhood associations to issue a trespass notice, banning people from a property for a year. Most of the complaints that team receives from the Germantown community involve people hanging out or loitering in neighborhoods where they don’t live, explained Cokinos. He said that individuals from Montgomery Village, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, who may know one guy or girl in Germantown and don’t want to hang out in their own neighborhood, because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they go to the other neighborhoods and sit at the playground.
Cokinos used the example of the neighborhood near 19600 block of Gunners Branch. There were a lot of people loitering who didn’t live in the neighborhood. Residents felt nervous to walk in and out of the building. The condominium association contacted the DCAT unit and made the DCAT officers “agents of the property,” giving them the authority ban people from the area.
He explained, “If the person doesn’t live there and isn’t visiting someone, has no real business being on the property, and we found them with drugs in their pocket or we watched them throw trash on the ground, and we have permission from the homeowners association or condo association, we will issue a trespass and ban them from the property. That is one way we can eradicate the problems in these neighborhoods.”
While the unit is often dealing with so-called “quality of life” issues such as loitering and littering, Cokinos says those issues are often lead to larger problems.
Cokinos again pointed out the importance of community involvement in the DCAT program to prevent those quality-of-life crimes from becoming something more grievous. “If the communities or neighborhoods don’t call, we don’t know. Communities need to tell us what’s going in on in their neighborhoods.”
He explained that the DCAT team is available to all communities within District 5, but it needs guidance from the public. “We respond and deploy assets based on calls for service. We do analysis of what is the busiest area, from where are the most people calling 911 and that is where the extra manpower will be deployed. It is the squeaky wheel theory,” said Cokinos. “The squeaky wheel gets the extra grease. I tell people, if you have issues call, call, call.”
The sergeant said that criminals are a small percentage of the population, but are responsible for large percentages of the crimes in an area. “When we see a crime trend and we make an arrest, the crime in that area will drop way off,” said Cokinos.
“We want to go out and lock people up, and get prison terms for repeat offenders. Our unit is specifically targeting felonies, we want to get the very bad guys. A very small percent of the population, and we want to target that one percent,” he said.
Cokinos explains that while his unit may not respond to service calls, the way a patrol car might, he and his unit are paying close attention to the radio calls. “I will also listen to the radio and say, for instance, Rushing Water Way has been calling 911 about suspicious individuals for three of the last five nights, and we will deploy based on calls for service because our job is clean up neighborhoods.”
“So if we see a neighborhood that is calling a lot, that is a clue that perhaps we should go over there and find out what’s going on and get a solution so people don’t have to call anymore. Sometimes we will take care of it permanently, and other times will we come in an squash it, and move on to another neighborhood and a month later the bad guys will trickle back and the citizens will start calling again and we’ll be back.”
Commander Gillespie explained that one of the benefits the DCAT unit brings is the ability to do follow-up and work with residents to ensure a longer lasting impact on the community. “Ultimately, it is the building of that relationship where we know that there are people in the community that we can talk to, but the people in the community are willing to call us and share information with us because every community that has an issue is going to need and want some assistance,” said Gillespie.
“The mission of DCAT is to go out and make a positive difference in the community, to help build relationships in the community and also make an impact on crime,” said Gillespie. “We want the community to know that the DCAT officers are here. We have this resource and we want to be able to address the issues that are at hand. It is very important to get the word out.”
EDITORS NOTE: For any community organization that might want Sergeant Jason Cokinos to speak at a metting, he can be reached at 240-773-6200 or by email at Jason.Cokinos@montgomeryCountymd.gov