Crime has Takoma Park on alert -- Gazette.Net


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This story was corrected on March 4, 2014. An explanation follows.

It was 9 p.m. on a cold January evening when Char Serwa became another statistic — a crime victim, robbed and carjacked at gunpoint.

Serwa parked her car in the driveway of her Takoma Park home. She then noticed a man walking fast on Sycamore Avenue.

“I knew this was bad immediately. I didn’t have time to run back to my car and get away,” Serwa said.

She decided to act calm and walked up the three steps near her home walkway. When she reached the third step and turned around, the man was behind her.

“He said ‘Give me all your stuff,’” Serwa said.

Serwa hesitated for a moment, at which point the man raised the gun to her face. Serwa said he was very specific.

“He asked for my keys, my purse, and my phone. ... I gave him everything, but I still had my house keys,” Serwa added.

Serwa was the fifth armed robbery victim in January in the city of Takoma Park. Her testimony was part of a town hall meeting on crime trends and prevention on Feb. 25 at the Takoma Park Community Center.

The rise in crime in the recent year in Takoma Park prompted residents to organize the meeting.

According to city manager Brian Kenner, overall crime in Takoma Park has dropped 4 percent, from 2012 to 2013. Montgomery County Police reported on Feb. 25 that crime dropped by 26 percent in Montgomery County, from 2007 to 2013.

In Takoma Park, burglaries have increased by 54 percent from 2012 to 2013. Sycamore Avenue is now a hot spot, with burglaries up by 300 percent from 2012 to 2013.

“I have to believe this gathering is a moving in the right direction for the community and the police department to find and adopt solutions to Takoma Park’s crime problem even if it is uncomfortable. ... One is too many ... and five makes us an easy target,” Serwa said.

The meeting, hosted by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams, was a two-hour forum to raise awareness and discuss strategies for crime prevention in the region.

Residents decided they’ve had enough and started the Takoma Park Crime Prevention group a couple of weeks after Serwa’s incident. They have met four times at each other’s homes to explore options to prevent crime, and have better communication between the community and law enforcement.

Among their recommendations: the installation of surveillance cameras around the city and on police cruisers; automated license readers on police vehicles; changing traffic patterns to minimize access and easy escape for criminals, and cross-jurisdiction cooperation among the police departments.

More than 200 residents attended the meeting Feb. 25, which included testimony from victims of crimes such as burglary, armed robberies, and carjacking. A panel of eight police chiefs listened to residents’ concerns, testimonies, and recommendations.

Among them were Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg, Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark Magaw, District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Maryland-National Capital Park Police Chief Antonio DeVaul, Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik, University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell and Marcus Brown, Maryland’s superintendent of police.

Jen Ujifusa has been living in Takoma Park for the past five years. On Jan. 11, she was walking home along Walnut Street from feeding a neighborhood’s cat at about 6 p.m. when a car pulled up. A man got out and pulled a gun on Ujifusa.

She tossed him her purse, which the gunman picked up and ran away.

Ujifusa said the Takoma Park Police initial response was good, and officers were out almost immediately. “They brought dogs; they followed the trail; they were kind [and] they made sure I was all right,” said Ujifusa.

Ujifusa found out on Feb. 25 there has been progress in her case. Investigators issued an arrest warrant that day, and arrested Quinton Andro Battle, 17, of Suitland, Md. on Feb.26.. But until the officer called her, she was certain nothing was going to be done.

“I felt completely disenfranchised, and I could have been better served and would be more loyal and an ally to you if I had been offered more information more often; even if the message contained no specifics,” Ujifusa said.

Battle was arrested and charged as an adult for armed carjacking, armed robbery, felony firearm use, possession of handgun, theft of $10,000 to under $100,000 in Serwa’s case, and theft less than $1,000 in Ujifusa’s incident.

According to www.takomaparkmd.gov, the city has approximately 17,000 residents and has 46 police officers who patrol 2.4 square miles.

Goldberg said crime is a regional issue, not only a Takoma Park issue.

“Criminals don’t really care. ... They don’t care what border they cross,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said the department is looking into an interconnectivity mobile data system so dispatchers from different jurisdictions can talk to each other.

Editor’s note: In the original version of this story, the statistic for the increase in burglaries was misused as the increase in crime overall.

abarros@gazette.net