The Damascus Gardens apartment complex is trying to turn over a new leaf after police arrested 13 men and women last month on drug dealing charges.
Those arrested were drug dealers, users and people with histories of drug use, said Montgomery County police Capt. Luther T. Reynolds, commander of the 5th Police District in Germantown. They were involved with the distribution of cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and illegal prescription pills as well as maintaining a common nuisance at the complex, police said.
“A comprehensive effort is just beginning,” Reynolds said.
The Montgomery County Police Department was selected in January 2011 to participate in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Market Initiative program to reduce crime and drug-related violence. The application requires the selection of a specific neighborhood that police characterize as operating an open air drug market. The initiative is intended to shut down open air drug markets and thereby reduce crime and violence in the target neighborhood.
The application required the selection of a neighborhood that fit this criteria and the police department chose the Damascus Gardens, a 104-unit apartment complex on Bethesda Church Road.
“This complex has been riddled with drug activity for well over 15 years and currently has an unsolved homicide that is deemed to be drug related,” police said in a prepared statement.
The federal program offers police training, Reynolds said. Police began their investigation of Damascus Gardens in April.
“We want to go at the root causes, engage the community to take back the community,” he said.
Reynolds joined police Chief J. Thomas Manger, State’s Attorney John McCarthy, Director of the Upcounty Regional Services Center Cathy Matthews and representatives of county social services agencies at a community meeting Dec. 15 to discuss the future of the apartments, Reynolds said.
“We believe Damascus Gardens could be an outstanding community where people are free to live a high quality of life,” he said. “That has not been the case with all this drug dealing going on.”
Changing a neighborhood
In recent years, there have been drug overdoses and deaths in the apartments, including an unsolved December 2008 homicide. Police do not keep data on drug overdoses, Reynolds said.
“This is not a victimless crime,” he said. “We are tired of that kind of criminal activity.”
At the meeting, residents were told they must help in turning their community around.
“The response we’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive and helpful,” Reynolds said. “A lot more needs to be done.”
Faith Connections, a nonprofit Christian organization that helps families in Damascus and Clarksburg achieve self-sufficiency, organizes after-school programs for children living in Damascus Gardens and classes for single mothers studying for their high school degrees.
“I do know there are some wonderful people who live in the gardens,” said Debbie Tomlinson, Faith Connections program director.
Officials with Grady Management Inc., the apartments’ management company, thought there was a drug problem in the apartments and is working with police, said Grady Management President Gary Campbell.
“We were proactive,” Campbell said. “Our desire is to get to the root of what we were thinking was the problem and the police were totally on board.”
Some residents of the complex are receiving federal assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development affordable housing program, Reynolds said. Police will conduct background checks to ensure new applicants for apartments do not have criminal records, which would make them ineligible for the program.
Police arrested 12 people Dec. 9, and one more person Dec. 22, said Officer Rebecca Innocenti, a police spokeswoman.
Lawyer Philip Armstrong of Rockville represents one of those arrested, Shakina M. Harriday, 31, of Gaithersburg. Harriday is charged with one count of possession of marijuana, one count of possession of narcotics and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia. Lawyers for the others arrested either did not return phone calls or the others did not yet have lawyers.
“The only charges involve a few grams of pot and cocaine residue,” Armstrong said. “A new broom sweeps up the big fish and the very smallest. She is the smallest. I have a real problem with throwing the little fish in with the big.”
An attorney for two of those arrested did not return multiple phone calls by Tuesday. The others had no attorney listed in court records.
Police have arrest warrants for eight more people they think are lower level drug dealers at the apartments, Reynolds said. At the December community meeting, they were warned to cease their activities involving drugs and violence and offered services to assist them with substance abuse, education, job training and family services, police said.
“We have a year we’re going to monitor them,” Reynolds said. “If they violate the law, do or deal drugs, we’ll sign those arrest warrants and they’ll be charged with crimes.”