- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

A Prince George's County police team made its first round patrolling "quality-of-life crimes" yesterday, towing more than 40 abandoned cars.

The "quality-of-life enforcement team" six officers and a sergeant will work full-time towing cars, issuing citations to street peddlers and enforcing other ordinances as part of acting Police Chief Gerald Wilson's efforts to better connect the department with the community while cleaning up neighborhoods that have been the breeding ground for more serious crimes.

According to a police department spokesman, the idea arose out of community meetings Chief Wilson attended.

"The feedback that we had gotten from the community is that while they were concerned about high-profile crimes murders and robberies they were also very concerned with these nuisance crimes," Cpl. Joe Merkel said.

The department hopes that by targeting these lesser offenses and cleaning up neighborhoods, it will instill greater pride among residents.

"We hope then, that these cleaner neighborhoods will be able to curb other crimes," Cpl. Merkel said.

Other quality-of-life crimes include solicitation violations and illegal dumping, he said. The police department will be working closely with the Department of Public Works and the Department of Environmental Resources to deal with such problems, which usually fall outside of the police department's domain.

While Cpl. Merkel stressed that the enforcement efforts were Chief Wilson's own initiative, he allowed that it did parallel the "zero-tolerance" philosophy of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, which is credited with helping to dramatically reduce crime in the 1990s.

But that crackdown on minor violations also drew heavy criticism, with detractors saying the policies exacerbated the New York Police Department's race and brutality problems.

Chief Wilson's initiative comes from a department roiled in recent years with its own charges of police brutality and the resulting civil rights investigations.

Cpl. Merkel said that the criticism of New York's efforts were not of concern.

"This is going to be a countywide program. We're not targeting any one area or group," Cpl. Merkel said. "We're looking at it as a way to provide security to all residents."

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat who criticized the administration of Chief John S. Farrell, Chief Wilson's predecessor, lauded the effort.

"This is tackling exactly the right problem," Mr. Currie said. "I probably get the greatest concern from my constituents about abandoned cars and homes, and all of these other basic quality-of-life issues."

Far from threatening to increase the divide between the community and the police department, the patrols will actually help to mend those rifts, he said.

"[The patrols] will give the police a presence the average law-abiding citizen wants to see the police, wants the feeling of security."

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat, said he also approves of the effort.

"Any time dollars are taken away from fighting violent crime, some people feel queasy, but my constituents want these other problems tackled, too," he said.

While he said he disagreed with Mr. Giuliani's attempts to "lock up squeegee guys," he thought that towing cars and issuing citations raised few of the questions that New York's "zero-tolerance" approach did.

And issues of racial bias were less relevant in Prince George's County, he said. "Prince George's is a primarily African-American community and they don't like their property values to go down either," Mr. Pinsky said.

Formed July 1, the team has yet to work out all of the details of their patrols, Cpl. Merkel said. Yesterday, the team focused exclusively on towing cars in the Palmer Park neighborhood around police headquarters, removing the 40 that had not been moved since warnings were issued last week.

One by one, the cars were brought back to headquarters, loaded onto flatbeds and taken to the county's impound lot.

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