To use the parlance of today’s youth, Germantown has been “lit” as of late. The community has endured a spate of violent crime over the last four weeks including two murders, a shooting, and three armed robberies — all of which have been separate incidents occurring in various and random areas of town.
The Germantown Pulse sat down with Montgomery County Police Capt. Mark Plazinski, the Commander of the 5th District – Germantown to discuss the recent uptick in violent crime. Capt. Plazinski took over the 5th District in May of 2017.
Plazinski is a 23-year veteran of the Montgomery County Police Department. He previously served as Director of MCPD’s Criminal Investigations Division, which is comprised of several sections responsible for investigating a wide range of property crimes and crimes against persons. The Criminal Investigations Division includes the detective sections in all six police districts, as well as the Financial Crimes Section, the Central Auto Crimes Section, and MCPD’s Crime Lab.
Germantown Pulse: Are the recent shootings and homicides related? Is there a turf battle between rival crews happening in Germantown?
Capt. Plazinski: We are not operating under the impression that this is a big gang war breaking out in Germantown. These are specific individual beefs between people, and they could be over a girl, or drugs, or anything. However, these people are using a firearm to settle these disputes — disputes that historically might have been handled with a fistfight. Now, these people are armed with a firearm, and the disputes become much more dangerous and deadly.
Germantown Pulse: Has Germantown become more violent or is this sort of thing cyclical? Does it come in waves and eases up after a time?
Capt. Plazinksi: We have experienced two homicides in close time proximity to each other. But, we have to keep in mind that we have so few of them when you look at the number of people that are living in Germantown and Montgomery County the homicide rate is still low. A murder is a horrific thing. It is a tragedy beyond words for the family and the victims, and the community, but those are small in number. But for us as community and police department, even one homicide is very important. Because they are rare, they garner a lot of attention not only from the Pulse but also from the Washington Post and the Sentinel. It is a significant newsworthy event when somebody is murdered, and that is why we take them as seriously as we do and thoroughly investigate them the way we do.
For robberies, strong-arm robbery is still our number one category. We do delineate out robberies with guns, and over the course of the year, we had 12 street robberies where the suspect used a gun. And then there are the commercial robberies, the Pizza Hut, the Subway and the 7-Elevens. The good news is we’ve closed some of those, and we’ve made arrests and firearms have been recovered.
For me as the commander, I am always concerned when firearms are involved. With a strong arm robbery, people can be hurt and it is a serious crime, but anytime a firearm is involved the incident is an instant away from going from a robbery to a homicide. There have been some homicides in the County, which might have started as a robbery but turned into homicides because somebody had a firearm. Firearms and bad guys are not a good combination. That is concerning to us.
Germantown Pulse: Has there been an uptick in criminal activity in Germantown? Are there areas in town where you’ve targeted 5th District resources?
Capt. Plazinski: Right now we don’t have a trend anywhere in Germantown. Detectives are working the Gunners Branch shooting and two recent homicides, but there is no trend where I can point to a map and say, “This is where I want to deploy my officers to stop the shootings or the robberies.” When you look at the data in Germantown, there is nothing identifiable. We have some areas that are busy or are hotter spots than others, but there is nothing which the data points to that would tell us where we need to be.
Germantown Pulse: Has there been a shift in criminal activity in Germantown in recent months? Are there more bad actors in town?
Capt. Plazinski: I think there are more than I’d would like to be here. There are people out there who are doing crimes — violent crimes, and that is not a good thing for the community or the police department. My officers are out there making arrests and getting guns off the street, and closing out these robbery cases, but oftentimes we are arresting the same people again and again. That is frustrating not only for me as the commander but for the officers as well.
When you look at a lot of the suspects and some victims, not in terms of the robberies as much but with the homicides, you find that they have extensive criminal histories. We’ve gone through a phase in law enforcement where we thought that perhaps we were over-incarcerating people, but I think we’ve shifted back. We have these people using guns for crimes, and they are violent criminals, and the system is not holding them accountable or incarcerating them. I don’t believe incarceration is a bad thing if somebody is a violent criminal prone to using a firearm. I would encourage incarceration for such an individual. It would keep my officers safe, and the residents of the 5th District safe.
As you look at incidents, I think the Gunners Branch shooting is a good example of this. You had individuals inside the McDonald’s and another two individuals outside of the McDonald’s. I don’t know if they were a gang or just a loose associations of friends. When the conflict started between those two separate groups, one side had a firearm, and it was not a good thing.
Germantown Pulse: Does Germantown have a gang problem? Is that in some way responsible for the uptick in violent criminal activity in Germantown?
Capt. Plazinski: As a police department, there are certain things that we have to do to identify people as being part of a gang because there are people who might say they were in a gang to increase their social status. Clearly, we have had criminal activity in Germantown associated with the Hit Squad and One Way Hustle. They are groups of interest for my officers here in the 5th District and for the gang unit. We are constantly evaluating how much they are involved in criminal activity in the area. Every group of kids walking through the Central Business District is not a gang.
Germantown Pulse: Are you expecting more officers in the 5th District to help combat the violent crime?
Capt. Plazinski: Guns and crime are not solely a Germantown issue. If you look at crime countywide other districts are struggling with similar issues. As a commander, it is easy for me to say that if we had more officers, we could do more, but there are only so many additional officers coming to Germantown. I think there are 35 or 37 new officers coming from the Police Academy and they have to be divided up among the six districts. Some districts have a stronger argument as to why they might need more than others because of officer retirements and reassignment to specialty units, and things of that nature. We will get more patrol officers from the new graduating class, but I don’t know the number yet. I submitted my wish list, and we will see what happens. We got seven new officers from the last class. They are all functioning well. They are on the road as patrol officers. I would love to get another seven officers, but I don’t know if that is in the cards. We will take what we get, and we’ll find work for them that’s for sure.
Germantown Pulse: What can residents do to help combat some of the violent crime in Germantown?
Capt. Plazinski: Our citizens know their neighborhoods. They know when things are going good, and they know when things are going bad. They know when somebody doesn’t belong in their neighborhood. If you are in a townhouse community and you suspect somebody is dealing drugs from their townhouse, call us and let us know. We will take a look at the situation and see if there is something criminal happening there.
If there is drug trade happening at that location, it may draw violence to your neighborhood based on that behavior. If your next door neighbor is involved in the drug trade that might cause problems in your neighborhood. Even if you are not engaged in that activity, but it is in your neighborhood, it can put your home in danger. Giving the police an anonymous tip that there is suspicious activity happening at a location, gives us a step up in taking a look at it and maybe it can prevent something.
I go to community meetings, and I talk about the stats related to theft from autos in that community and let’s say hypothetically that there had been 50 theft from autos in the community in the last six months. Usually, only two of those would be actual break-ins where a window had been smashed, and the other 48 thefts were the result of people leaving their car unlocked. In some neighborhoods, I would say that if we could get everyone to lock their cars and close their garage doors, every night crime would drop to almost zero.
I would much rather be the commander at a community meeting answering questions at a community meeting about two theft from autos where the windows were smashed, as opposed to 50 theft from autos, with 50 separate victims. If you don’t lock your car, you are making it easier for the criminal element to take advantage of that fact and encouraging them to return.
We have videos of guys walking through neighborhoods trying door handles, and he’ll try three doors on three different cars that are locked and move on, but once he finds an open door— he is in the car and out in 30 seconds, but he’s found his victim, and now he’s moving on. When you see somebody walking through your area and putting his hands on your neighbors’ cars and tampering with vehicles, call the County’s Emergency Call Center and have patrol officers dispatched to your street to check this guy out.
There are 140,000 people living in the 5th District and about 130 police officers if we can use the public’s eyes and ears that is the partnership that we have to have to help resolve some of these issues.
A murder is a horrific thing. It is a tragedy beyond words for the family and the victims, and the community, but they are small in number. It is the property crimes that we are dealing with the most here in Germantown. There are 20 to 30 theft from vehicles per week, and most of them are from unlocked vehicles.
The harder you make your neighborhood to be victimized, the less likely it is to have criminal activity. It is like fishing. If I go to this pond and every time I go to that pond I catch a big fish. I am going to want to come back there; I know that is a good fishing spot. If I go to a pond and I don’t catch anything, or the game warden is there an asks me for my permit or fishing license even when I don’t catch anything — that is not a fun place to fish. If you make it difficult for the suspect and they won’t want to come fishing in your pond. Let’s make Germantown a harder area for people to come to and be successful in criminal activities.
Germantown Pulse: Is Germantown a safe community?
Capt. Plazinski: Germantown is a great community to live in. We have challenges just like every other community, and that there is a police department. That is why we need engaged citizens helping keep their neighbors safe. Together we can make it a safer. We are most successful as a police department when we have community partners who are saying these are the issues and give us insight into the issues in the neighborhood.
For instance, Lisa York, the property manager at The Hamptons Community is a property manager who has gone above and beyond to work with the police to improve her community. She wanted her community to thrive. She has been a great partner. We’ve developed a great partnership with them. The Hamptons is a better place to live thanks to her being there and working with the police for the last few years.