Note: This is the first edition of The O’s Zone, a column from Germantown Pulse founder Kevin O’Rourke.
On a warm August night, I had the opportunity to ride along with the District Community Action Team or DCAT from the 5th District – Germantown for a full shift. The DCAT units are unique units in the Montgomery County Police Department structure. There is a DCAT in each of the six police districts in Montgomery County, and what makes them unique is that they are not beholden to radio calls. The DCAT teams work to prevent crime by searching for criminal activity.
I rode with Sgt. Jason Cokinos, the supervisor of the 5th District DCAT unit. Cokinos explained that the DCAT unit will cover four or five hot spots — neighborhoods that are experiencing an increase in criminal activity which have been identified either through analyzing calls for service or through specific requests from residents, neighborhood associations, or property management agencies.
We began the shift in the afternoon driving through the streets and parking areas of an apartment development off Crystal Rock Drive. In recent weeks there have been a number of incidents of non-resident young people loitering in the neighborhood and mugging other young people, stealing their sneakers or the smartphones. Cokinos said the property management company had asked the MCPD to try to put an end to the problem.
The objective is to identify which of the people are residents, who should be there and who the trouble makers are by stopping and interviewing people in the area. As we drive Sgt. Cokinos spots a group of kids sitting around a green electrical box between the apartment buildings, and we double back again. One of the kids spots our car, and they get up and start to move along.
The unit has at least one, sometimes more, undercover surveillance officers. However, on the night I was with them there was just one surveillance officer. This officer can get eyes on individuals and watch their actions while the marked units are out of sight. On the night I rode with the team, I never saw the surveillance officer, except when we stopped for dinner or when an arrest was made. The undercover officer, we’ll call him Bob, stayed well hidden.
For the first hour or so of the shift, we worked through the Hamptons apartment complex which straddles Crystal Rock Drive and Pinnacle apartments at the corner of Germantown Road and Crystal Rock Drive. At one point, we spotted a group of five men sitting in the stairwell of the Pinnacle apartments, and the sergeant asked them if they lived there — they did not. They weren’t doing anything other than sitting and talking. But they were doing so in an area where they were not supposed to be. They were asked to move along and did so with little or no resistance.
At the same time, MCPD officers were being called to the Chipotle restaurant, which was right down the street, for some sort of disturbance involving three young men who had just left. The men had been spotted by one of the other marked DCAT units as they were jaywalking across Germantown Road near the KinderCare at Town Center. Sgt. Cokinos parked behind the marked unit and assisted the other officer while she interviewed the three young men ranging in age from 19-25. The men were cooperative but nervous. They were each given electronically printed warnings for a creating traffic hazard by crossing the road outside of the crosswalk.
While we were parked there in the right-hand lane of northbound Rt. 118 and the officers were interviewing the three young men; I heard “F#%K you, cops!” shouted from a passing vehicle. Sgt. Cokinos turned around and jokingly gave them a thumbs up. He said he has been averaging about four or five “F#%K you, cops!” per shift. He said it is a relatively new phenomena that has become part of the daily lives of police officers since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “You can expect it from people that you are arresting, but to hear that from other people just passing you on the street is disconcerting,” he said. “But, it has become normal in society today.”
The Considerate Panhandler
As the three young men were sent on their way, we made a U-turn and worked our way south on Rt. 118 where a panhandler was seen drinking a beer while standing in the median at the corner of Rt. 118 and Wisteria Drive. He was also seen crossing the street to put the empty beer can in a trash bin. We pulled up and interviewed the gentleman. He provides his identification, with an address listed as a Montgomery County homeless shelter. He was given a warning about drinking in public and the inherent dangers of panhandling.
“Since he threw the empty beer in the trash I gave him a warning,” said Cokinos. “He wasn’t inebriated or aggressively harassing motorists. It isn’t illegal to panhandle in Montgomery County. I warned him to stay out of traffic. Sometimes you have to find a balance and compromise. Had he thrown the beer can on the road or on the median, I would have given him a ticket, but since he did the right thing and went out of his way to put it in the trash, I let him go with a warning."
With troublesome people not making an appearance in the neighborhood along Crystal Rock Drive, the team decided to shift focus to another Germantown neighborhood which has been sending complaints to the 5th District.
Fishing in the Grotto
Cokinos directed Bob, the undercover surveillance unit to go into the neighborhood on Grotto Lane and look for suspicious activity. The team has been getting reports from residents that there has been an increase in traffic, an increase in the number of people coming into the neighborhood and going to a particular address and leaving in the neighborhood a few minutes. The belief is that there may be drugs being sold in the neighborhood.
While Bob watched for increased traffic, Cokinos and I parked a few blocks away and waited for the word that something suspicious was happening. After about 25 minutes, I said to the sergeant, “This is kind of like fishing isn’t it? You get word of a good fishing hole where the fish might be biting, you set up your rig and wait for the bobber to signal that there is something going on under the water.”
“Yeah, it is sort of like fishing, and this is just one ways we work, sometimes we go hunting for criminals,” said Cokinos as we waited for the bobber to signal. After almost 60 minutes of waiting the radio crackled and Bob signaled. “Man, there is nothing going on here today. I haven’t seen anybody.” With that, we decided to move on to another area of town.
Another Fishing Hole
From Grotto Lane, we moved to the area surrounding the Fox Chapel Shopping Center on Frederick Avenue, near the intersection of Middlebrook Road. It didn’t take long. As our car turned from Rt. 355 on to Gunners Branch Road near the 7-Eleven and the McDonalds, we spotted a group of five men standing near the playground of the McDonalds. They seemed to see us before we saw them. They watched us make the turn.
After we passed the group, Bob, who had been in place before we got to the area, informed us that one of the group had run behind the McDonalds, jumped a small wall and was hiding in the bushes between the McDonalds and the Lube Center. We spotted him as we pulled into the parking lot of the Lube Center, and he immediately jumped up and began running back to the area of the McDonalds.
In the meantime, another marked unit arrived in the area. Bob informed us that the runner had gotten into the passenger seat of a car with another man driving and that car, a gray Nissan was pulling out of the parking lot. The car pulled out and stopped at the traffic light at Gunners Branch Road and Rt. 355. The other marked MCPD unit was directly behind him, and Sgt. Cokinos’ unit directly behind that unit.
Over the radio, the unit in front of us said that he could not make out anyone on the passenger side of the vehicle. Bob assured him, the subject that ran was in the car and had put the passenger seat down in an attempt to hide.
It was determined that the passenger’s suspicious behavior in the form of running, jumping over a wall, hiding in the bushes, in an attempt to evade detection by the police — all witnessed by the undercover officer amounted to probable cause for a traffic stop, although the driver had done nothing.
When the light turned green, the Nissan went straight, pulling into the Fox Chapel Shopping Center. Once the Nissan had made the left near the Bon Chon restaurant, the officer in front of us initiated a traffic stop by putting his lights on. The driver began a slow 180-degree turn, and while he was turning, the suspect in the passenger seat exited the vehicle.
The suspect opened the door and took off running north toward the Gold’s Gym at the far end of the strip mall. Sgt. Cokinos drove around the Nissan and the other MCPS unit and in front of the Bon Chon. The suspect continued running and suddenly ducked behind SUVs in the parking lot and was gone. We drove passed the building housing the RightTime Medical Care and Dunkin Donuts, but the suspect had disappeared while we were behind the building.
As other police officers began to stream toward the Fox Chapel Shopping Center to help locate our suspect, Cokinos and other MCPD officers continued to search the parking lot and surrounding area. The search went on for 20- to 30-minutes, including going into the GW Supermarket in an attempt to locate the suspect, but he was not found.
Meanwhile, the driver of the Nissan was questioned by the officer that stopped him. The driver was Timothy Thomas, 31, from Damascus. He that claimed he didn’t know the name of the man who had gotten into his car and didn’t know where he lived or where he could have gone.
Officers searched the Nissan, and a drug-sniffing K-9 unit was called to the scene. In a gym bag, in the vehicle, officers found a small vial and some cigarettes dipped in Phencyclidine or PCP, a hallucinogen that can be addictive. He was arrested and charged with Possession of Controlled Dangerous Substance – Not Marijuana.
Thomas was released on bond the following day and has a court date in October on the charge. He is of course, innocent of all charges until proven guilty in court. If convicted, he could face up to four years in prison or a fine not exceeding $25,000 or both.
The reason the young man ran from police is unknown, but speculation among police officers was that the unidentified man probably had a warrant out on him for some reason. However, now because of his actions, the “friend” whose car he jumped into and out of has been arrested and is facing drug possession charges. Charges which he probably would not have been facing had the “friend” not gotten into his car.
A shift that began in the mid-afternoon was coming into its final hours. The team had made one arrest and interviewed several people throughout the shift. “It has been a fairly quiet night,” said Cokinos, as he quickly punched the license plate numbers of the black BMW stopped in front of us at traffic light into the laptop in his police cruiser.
“The back tag is not on straight, and one of the license plate lights isn’t working,” said the sergeant. He suspects the car might be stolen, but it checks out ok.
He had been doing this all night — just punching license plates into the computer. “Do you do this a lot?” I ask.
“Yeah. It is part of hunting. I have found a few stolen cars that way,” he said. “You never know what will come back. Usually, it is nothing, but sometimes you get lucky.”
As the shift went on into the night, it proved to continue to be quiet. With one member of the team at headquarters doing the paperwork related to the arrest, there weren't as many eyes on the road to continue the hunt for criminal activity. So, we parked near the I-270 overpass on Middlebrook Road. Cokinos put the radar on. We watched traffic stream down the hill from Waring Station Road.
It was quiet. We sat there for roughly 20 minutes. Traffic was steady, but no one was driving more than 10 mph over the posted 40 mph speed limit. I would have gotten a ticket — I speed down that hill all the time, but nobody was speeding on this night.
It was a quiet night in Germantown. Sgt. Cokinos and his team will be back on the road the tomorrow working in other neighborhoods. Bob will park, and watch, and signal when something goes down. And they will move to another neighborhood in an effort to prevent crime and stop criminals.
Through the course of the night, the team made other traffic stops, interviewed other people, talked to residents, watched and waited as other individuals who were known to be involved in criminal activity in the past drifted in and out of the surveillance areas; but on this night only one fish was caught.
The DCAT team is available to all communities within District 5, but it needs guidance from the public. It is deployed based on calls for service.
As Cokinos said in an October 2014 interview with Germantown Pulse, “We do an 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.”
Photos by Germantown Pulse