More than 250 residents packed the meeting room at the Germantown Public Library on Wednesday night to discuss the ongoing problems of crime in the Germantown Town Center, and steps that Montgomery County Police from the 5th District were taking to get a handle on the problem. The meeting was organized Councilmember Craig Rice, Upcounty Regional Services Director, Catherine Matthews, along with Maryland State District 15 Delegates David Frazer-Hidalgo and Aruna Miller.
5th District Commander Captain David Gillespie began the meeting by outlining the problem that residents and merchants have been facing in the Central Business District, which includes the areas between Father Hurley Boulevard to Great Seneca Highway and up Middlebrook Road, and from I-270 south to the CSX train tracks. However, the bulk of the problems have been situated on Century Boulevard.
The Scope of the Problem
Throughout March, April and in the early part of May residents and businesses in the Town Center have been reporting to police that large numbers of teenagers have been roaming Century Boulevard, going into businesses and restaurants where they would sometimes shoplift items, or act unruly, intimidate business owners and patrons, become disruptive, and sometimes vandalize property.
“We experienced a significant loss of sales and business,” said Jason Pepin, the property manager with Avison Young, who manages the properties which house the Safeway store, as well many of the other properties along Century Boulevard, including the Verizon store, Baja Fresh, and Ruby Tuesday on one end, as well as Chipotle and Yogi Castle on the other end. “Our tenants did not feel safe. People stopped coming to their stores and restaurants because they didn’t feel safe.”
“Most of the time it is just teenagers hanging out, and sometimes there is one or two that starting doing things they shouldn’t, and that is when the problems start,” said Gillespie.
“In April and May,” said Gillespie, “we have seen large numbers of young people, sometimes 30 or more going into businesses, McDonalds and Taco Bell are two of the most popular. We have reports shoplifting at the Five Below store. We had some fights out in front of Safeway.”
There was a 25 percent increase in the number of calls for service in the Germantown Central Business District in the month of March 2016, compared to March 2015, according to Gillespie. In March 2015, police responded to 443 calls for service in March 2016 that number jumped to 554.
In April 2016 that increase was 72 percent over April 2015. In April 2015, police responded to 419 calls for service in the Central Business District, in April 2016 that number rose to 720 calls. “We find that pretty significant,” said Gillespie.
Gillespie said his officers responded to 910 calls in January and February of 2016, and over the next two months March and April 2016, the number of calls rose 40 percent to 1,274. “In March and April of this year we have seen a significant amount of calls for service,” he said.
Montgomery County Police from the 5th District have been responding to these issues by sometimes pulling resources from other duties. Gillespie said that having a dedicated Central Business District Unit, which responds, either on foot, on bikes, or in cars has helped. The CBD unit has been patrolling since January of 2015, and a second CBD team, which was in the planning pipeline prior to the current wave is problems took to the streets earlier this month on May 1. The two CDB units give the area additional police coverage seven days per week.
“We knew early on when we were dealing with the hordes of kids on Century Boulevard that we weren’t going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Sergeant Mark McCoy, who leads one of the 5th District CBD units. “A lot of what the kids were doing is just kids being kids, but we were getting to the point where the fun was turning into criminal acts, they were going into restaurants and establishments and stealing things.”
In response to the problem, police leaders from the 5th District devised a plan to weed out the instigators while demonstrating to all the youths that poor choices carry consequences.
McCoy said his team took two weeks and observed the kids. “We wanted to see what was going on, who was doing what, and what was it leading towards. Because you are not going to go out and arrest 60 kids — that was the size of these groups. In addition, we went to every business and said, if they come in here, you have to call us and let us know.”
When merchants called, McCoy and his team would go to the location and identify everyone in the group, if the business wanted any members of the group to be banned from the location MCPD would ban those individuals.
“One of the things that we are doing when we get a call from a business that has a large group of 30, or 50, or 10 teenagers hanging out in a restaurant and causing trouble, such as knocking over display stands, or destroying things,” said Gillespie. “We are making arrests, but we are also banning people from being allowed back in those locations for up to a year if the business owner or property owner asks us to ban the individuals.”
“It gave us a chance to start a dialogue,” McCoy told the residents at the meeting. “We stopped them and sat them down. We got their name, address, their parent’s name and phone number. It took away the anonymity of the large group. We have all this information and we put it in a spreadsheet and shared it with every officer in the 5th District, so every officer knows who is banned from what location. That list is updated weekly.”
“Once we had them identified, we could begin to make arrests,” said McCoy. “If you were banned from McDonalds and you showed up in the McDonalds parking lot, you were arrested. If you were under 18, that meant the cuffs go on, and you are taken to the station and your parents have to come get you.”
This opened up a dialogue with the parents or guardians. McCoy said that there was a lot of support from parents and guardians that his team spoke with at the station.
“We took away the anonymity and went with zero tolerance enforcement,” said McCoy. After a month, when the teenagers now realized that there were repercussions for their actions, their actions changed. Indeed, calls for service in the Central Business District have dropped since mid-April. McCoy said that his officers’ relationship with the teens has changed. “Now, they wave at us with all five fingers instead of just one.”
Gillespie said that his officers have made 30 arrests for trespassing since January 1, 2016.
While McCoy and his team were keeping surveilling, identifying, banning, and arresting in the Central Business District, other officers from the 5th District work working with the School Resource Officers at local schools to better understand the problem and those involved.
“They know a lot of the people in the community to help with engagement and to begin conversations and identifying people. It has been a great resource,” said Gillespie.
Gillespie also said that an additional officer has been working an overtime detail at the Germantown Public Library, saying that there have been some incidents, including an assault at the library. “We take this very seriously. We want [the library] to be safe for the staff. We want people that come here to feel safe, and we want the community to feel safe. We have a presence here at the library,” said Gillespie.
Officers from the 5th District have also been working with the Street Outreach Network, which is run the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. The Street Outreach Network works to prevent, neutralize, and control hostile behavior in high-risk youth and youth gangs through the development of positive relationships between youth/community stakeholders and the outreach workers.
Councilmember Craig Rice told those at the meeting that the County’s FY2017 operating budget contains funding to expand the Street Outreach Network to the Germantown area.
Another component of the response to this problem came in the form of private security, which was hired by the property management company Avison Young, which hired JD Pride Security, which employs off-duty Montgomery County Police Officers to perform security tasks at their properties all along Century Boulevard.
“We felt we had to take an extra step to keep our tenants, their employees and our customers safe,” said Pepin, who manages the properties in Germantown’s Town Center.
Gillespie told the residents gathered at Wednesday night’s meeting that all of these initiatives have resulted in a significant drop in calls for service in the Town Center area in recent weeks. There have been few reports of groups 30 or more teenagers roaming the area. However, Gillespie points out that the weather has not been conducive to hanging out outside.
“This is Not Gang Related.”
One of the major questions, which was brought up by residents multiple times was whether these problems are related to the presence of organized criminal gangs such as MS-13, which is a violent gang that has played an active part in Montgomery County crime.
The answer from police officials was no.
“This is not gang related,” said McCoy. “These are a group of kids that are getting together either through social media or from school. The main people that we are dealing with are the freshman class from Seneca Valley High School and the eighth-grade class from Martin Luther King Middle School. Those are the kids that we are dealing with mostly, and they live here. They live on either side of Century Boulevard, they meet in the middle and hang out. They come together to hang out in a large group, and there would be one of two instigators who’d begin to act up and be stupid, and there would be a bunch of followers.”
Gillespie agreed that the recent problems were not gang related. “MS-13 does have a presence in the Germantown area,” admitted Gillespie. “Is there a significant problem where we are dealing with MS-13 related crime on a daily basis? No. Do we have other neighborhood crews or gangs that are here? Yes, they run between Germantown and Gaithersburg. Is there a gang activity in the Fifth District, Yes. Is that what is creating the issues we are experiencing in the Central Business District? No,” said Gillespie.
“This is about personal accountability,” said Gillespie. “This is about a number of things that we all, as a community, have to deal with from parenting to teaching, to how we as police interact with these kids. It is a whole bunch of issues through which we have to get to personal accountability, and that is done through building bridges, and respect, and having better communication and relationships. We all want to feel like we are connected to something, we are a part of something, we are valued. That is what a lot of these kids are lacking.”
“This is something that can’t be solved through police work alone,” said Rice.
Rice told the residents at the meeting that Montgomery County has been growing its after-school and Rec-Xtra programs in both the middle schools and the high schools, but the catch is that parents and students must be aware and must want to take part in these programs.
“We have so many programs that go underutilized,” said Rice, “We spend millions of dollars on programs that folks are not using. We have workforce development jobs available for kids. However, the reality is that if you don’t have parents that want to send their kids, or you have kids that are not interested, what do you do? We can’t force kids to take advantage of programs.”
“However, when our officers know about these programs and talk to the kids about them, and the members of the Street Outreach Network educate the kids about these programs it might get them to participate,” said Rice.
Seneca Valley High School Principal Dr. Marc J. Cohen reminded the residents that the problems in Town Center did not reflect the attitudes and behaviors of the vast majority of Germantown’s youth.
“We are talking about a small group of young people that are making bad decisions, some of them are from the Germantown area, many of them are not,” said Cohen. “What is most important to remember is that they are not the sum and total of all the youth in this community. We have amazing kids who are doing remarkable things with their time every day.”
“A congregation of 20 or 30 kids might mean it is dismissal time,” he said. “It might mean a bunch of really good kids that are slowly making their way home. It might mean a bunch of kids that have met up at the local basketball court to talk about what they are going to do this weekend. It might mean that they are out for no good, but I caution all of us against making the assumption that a group of young people automatically means criminal activity.”
He pointed to a group of Seneca Valley students in attendance who were with the Ace Project, who are high school athletes creating and influencing positive change one project and athlete at a time. “These gentlemen here, when they hang out on the street, they are not talking about how they can rob you. They are talking about how they can help their peers. They are putting together programs that make their community better.”
“I think the greatest source of strength that we have is a fantastic police force that cares enough to get to know these kids before they lock them up,” said Cohen.
One resident, who said she lived on Century Boulevard expressed concerns at might happen once schools close for the summer and the teens have nothing do all day. She said residents that live on “the Strip” are dreading the day that schools close for summer break.
Police leaders said that while it is true when school is out things may get increase again, however, without an initial gathering point such as school many of the large groups may not form at all.
Lieutenant Jim Brown said that officers from 5th District were preparing for additional problems which they expected to occur during MCPS Spring Break, but there were hardly any problems in the Town Center over break.
“We did not have the problems with kids gathering on “the strip” during Spring Break. I think that is wasn’t that people were out of town, I think it was there was no starting point. They are all together at school and stay together after school. We thought there was going to be a huge increase during Spring Break, and we deployed extra police to deal with it, and there was nothing.”
Gillespie said that he shared the resident’s concerns for the summer months. “I am concerned about what will happen when it is not raining every day. We can’t say this has been a total success. We know we’ve had some success, but the real tell-tale success will be what happens when school gets out and through August because all it takes is a text message, but we have the resources now for this area — dedicated to this area seven days a week. But, if there is a need to pull resources from other areas, I will do it in a second if things ramp up.”
Top: More than 250 residents packed the Germantown Public Library meeting room to discuss on going issues with crime and youths in the Town Center, with political leaders and police officials from the 5th District in Germantown.
Next: Councilmember Craig Rice addresses community concerns.
Next: Commander David Gillespie and Sgt. Mark McCoy from the Montgomery County Police 5th District discuss the police department’s response to the problem of youth creating trouble in the Town Center.
Next: Sgt. Mark McCoy talks about his Central Business District unit’s response to the problem.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.