Statistics say crime is down
June 21, 2000
Theodore Kim
Staff Writer

Perceptions reveal

a different story

Incidents of serious crime in Silver Spring -- including murder, rape and assault -- are at their lowest levels in a decade, according to statistics released recently by Montgomery County Police.

Last year, reported crimes, both serious and lesser, were down nearly 10 percent from 1998, the statistics revealed.

Arrests by police also have declined 12 percent during the same duration, a significant drop that indicates fewer crimes being committed.

But the regionwide perception of Silver Spring -- especially of the downtown area, as well as the neighborhoods bordering the District of Columbia -- is that crime is still high, perhaps even climbing.

The dubious undercurrent arises as public officials and local activists have, at last, begun to breathe commercial life into Silver Spring's languishing central business district.

After decades of urban decay and failed redevelopment efforts, nearly $1 billion in both public and private funding is being funneled into the downtown area in a vast, carefully orchestrated push for renewal.

However, the issue of public safety in Silver Spring's sundry neighborhoods -- or rather the perception of public safety -- remains a formidable obstacle in the way of a revitalized downtown.

"Crime has been the Achilles' heel of commercial redevelopment, there's no question about it," said Randy Boehm, co-head of the Gateway Coalition, a local civic group, in an April interview.

Councilman Blair G. Ewing (D-At large) of Silver Spring, said in a recent phone interview that he voted last month in favor of adding downtown horse-mounted police to the county's budget because he is convinced the area remains unsafe.

"People should be able to walk around day or night and not fear for their safety," Ewing said. "I have friends in Bethesda who perceive that crime [in Silver Spring] is increasing."

Ewing said he has been a crime victim three times in the past eight years in Silver Spring.

He said he witnessed a robbery last year at a local bank, which, he claimed, sits adjacent to a police station.

"It's time to really beef up the presence of security in Silver Spring," he said.

Public safety was a key issue during a recent county Planning Board hearing over the designs for Discovery Communications' future Silver Spring headquarters.

The $160 million project, to be located at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, is considered the cornerstone of the redevelopment effort.

In 1998, the giant global media firm announced it was relocating from overcrowded offices in Bethesda, igniting Silver Spring's current commercial revitalization.

However, initial designs for Discovery's site include a 6-foot steel fence with tall hedges surrounding what is meant to be an accessible public garden along Wayne Avenue. The gates would be locked at night, project officials said.

At the hearing, Discovery executives argued the steel fence is necessary to protect late-working employees after dark.

"The fence addresses security," said Domenick Fioravanti, a senior Discovery executive, at the hearing. "Yes, we are concerned about vandalism and loitering. We didn't want this fence to be obnoxious. ... But at three in the morning, who is going to be in the [garden]?"

Stephen Kaufman, an attorney for the media firm, told the Planning Board the fence would help protect and reassure Discovery's employees, "many of whom are young women."

While the Planning Board, eventually, approved the headquarters' design, its members lobbied for a fence that looks inviting, with large gates and signs.

Silver Spring's negative perception also manifested itself conspicuously in a quote made months ago by Potomac-resident Mary Kane, who recently ran opposite Howard Denis for County Council.

Kane, when asked about her views on a future trolley-line linking Silver Spring and Bethesda, stated her opposition to the project.

"I see the need to go from Silver Spring to Bethesda, but I don't see the need to go from Bethesda to Silver Spring," she told The Gazette in February.

For years, local officials and police have battled Silver Spring's negative image by coordinating public events like community cleanups and outdoor music festivals, and displaying colorful street banners and advertising.

Still, local officials and activists agree it is an uphill fight.

Lori Gillen, head of the Silver Spring Regional Center, said the region is plagued by two distinct perceptions.

"People that live in this community often feel the area is under-appreciated," Gillen said. "Meanwhile, people outside the community that haven't been to Silver Spring for a while still feel it's unsafe. Their previous perceptions have not caught up with reality."

Capt. Drew Tracy, head of Silver Spring police district, argued visibility is the key, adding that the downtown horse-mounted patrols approved by the County Council will help.

"Police visibility is the single most important deterrent to crime," Tracy said. "Until we can get lots of people on the streets, visibility will be an issue."

Gillen agreed.

"Right now, there is a shortage of retail and destination attractions," she said. "But when redevelopment is finished, we can bring people and abolish their negative perceptions."

In addition to horse-mounted park police and bike-mounted police patrols, the Silver Spring Service Corps -- a downtown civilian patrol unit funded by the county -- may be gradually beginning to change the area's pessimistic image.

In spite of any lingering perception problems, at least one local business is hopeful of redevelopment, as well as the recent drop in crime countywide.

"There has been [a negative perception] for a long time," said Bob Becker, manager at Abbey Camera on Georgia Avenue, which, according to police reports, was burglarized twice in April. "But with redevelopment, and with Discovery coming in, things have certainly begun to turn around."