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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

Progressives, Crime and Silver Spring

If I asked you to name the biggest reason workers don't want to return to the office, would you pick (a) flexibility of working from home, (b) exposure to COVID, or (c) dislike of commutes? According to a new Brookings Institute report, the answer is (d) concerns about crime and disorder in business districts where offices are located.

The Brookings report has special relevance for downtown Silver Spring, which has struggled with elevated office vacancies since Discovery Communications left in 2018 and is also dealing with thorny challenges to public safety. The report should prompt progressives to reconsider how their approach to police reform may contribute to a sense that they don't take crime - and its consequences for quality of life - very seriously.

But before getting into what's happening with crime in Silver Spring, here's what Brookings discovered in interviews with more than 100 workers in four cities:

Respondents overwhelmingly pointed to crime—not the desire for flexible work arrangements—as the top barrier preventing workers’ return to office . . . . [T]he vast majority of residents, major employers, property owners, small business owners, and other stakeholders reported rising rates of violent crime and property crime downtown and indicators of 'disorder' . . . as the top barriers stopping workers from coming back to the office—and thus impeding downtown recovery.

The Brookings report should give progressives pause, because it suggests that crime and disorder erode confidence in government. "Downtowns have experienced significant disruptions since the pandemic that have made workers, visitors, and residents feel uneasy," the report says. "In particular . . . increased visibility of public drug use, high-profile violent crimes, vacant storefronts, emptier streets, and harassment are making residents feel as though their city is in disarray, and that the government isn’t doing much about it."

Carjacking and shootings are increasingly frequent - and brazen - in Silver Spring

Crime has become a more visible problem in lots of places, but a steady stream of disturbing incidents in and around downtown Silver Spring is alarming residents and raising concerns about the consequences for the central business district. Crime rates in Silver Spring may be lower than in cities like Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York (where Brookings conducted its interviews), but several kinds of crime - including both violent offenses and less serious "nuisance" activities - are on the upswing.

These kinds of crimes make people feel unsafe because even though they are relatively unusual - and they occur in other parts of DC and Montgomery County - they suggest that someone who is simply driving through downtown Silver Spring or walking to a restaurant could be victimized. Several crimes have happened during daylight hours or in the early evening in parts of downtown Silver Spring with heavy pedestrian traffic and other activity:

The daytime shootout described in this news story did not result in any injuries, but a teenager was killed in another drive-by shooting in downtown Silver Spring, and any exchange of gunfire in a busy area endangers bystanders as well as the intended targets.

Silver Spring also has experienced problems with other kinds of nuisance behavior, such as street racers who take over intersections and block traffic to perform stunts, endangering pedestrians and other drivers:

Nobody was hurt during this incident, but the lack of police response sends a message that nobody is willing or able to step in and stop dangerous and illegal behavior before it results in a serious injury or death.

Overall crime rates are up, especially in Silver Spring

Silver Spring is not some kind of urban hellscape beset by murderers and carjackers, but it is a fact that crime is up. Adam Pagnucco of Montgomery Perspective has crunched the numbers and documented a dramatic increase in both property and violent crimes in and around downtown Silver Spring. Pagnucco found violent crime increased by 8 percent in Montgomery County over the period from 2017-22, but it went up by 43 percent in the zip code 20910, which includes downtown Silver Spring and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Pagnucco's analysis showed the violent crime rate for Silver Spring during this period was 8.0 for every 1,000 residents, or 41 percent higher than the countywide rate of 4.7 violent crimes for every 1,000 residents. That put the violent crime rate in 20910 higher than any other zip code in Montgomery County except 20877, which covers Montgomery Village:

As for property crime, Pagnucco found that offenses per 1,000 residents did not increase in Montgomery County as a whole, but the rate in 20910 rose by 22 percent. The property crime rate in this zip code from 2017-22 averaged 45.3 offenses for every 1,000 residents, more than double the countywide rate of 21.8 offenses. This gave 20910 the highest property crime rate of any zip code in the county:

The fact that downtown Silver Spring now has higher crime rates than just about any other part of the county - including places with much higher rates of poverty - is astounding.

How has county government responded?

Montgomery police have taken some steps to address criminal activity in Silver Spring and elsewhere. For example, they have made several arrests in carjacking cases, and a new police district headquartered in Silver Spring is under consideration. After growing complaints about shootings and other criminal activity in and around late-night clubs in downtown Silver Spring, the Elrich administration recently proposed legislation that would require businesses operating after midnight in high-crime areas to implement security improvements by hiring private security guards or installing cameras and better lighting.

In many ways, though, our elected leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge public safety problems and resistant to the idea that sometimes police are a necessary if not always sufficient part of the solution. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the one of the few points of consensus informing the public safety agenda in Montgomery County in recent years has been that the role of police should be reduced wherever possible.

For example, Councilmembers Will Jawando and Kristin Mink have proposed banning traffic stops and searches of vehicles for certain offenses on the grounds that these tactics are ripe for racial discrimination, and a task force on "Reimagining Public Safety" appointed by the County Executive recommended deep cuts in the number of officers assigned to the Third District, which covers the East County including Silver Spring, for the express purpose of reducing police contact with people of color, despite polling that shows Americans of every race and ethnicity oppose a reduced police presence and African Americans in particular favor putting more police on the street. Neither proposal has been adopted, but the number of police has dwindled anyway due to attrition, and arrests for crimes such as disorderly conduct and drug offenses have declined sharply.

Silver Spring - and people of color - need better policing, not less policing

Of course, police are under scrutiny for good reason. The killing of George Floyd galvanized national attention on racism in policing, and Montgomery County has not been immune to abuses by the police, as when an officer shoved his knee into the back of a suspect who was handcuffed on the ground, bloodying the man's face. The officer was convicted of misdemeanor assault but later returned to duty after receiving "probation before judgment."

In other high-profile instances where police were accused of using excessive force, however, police were confronted by suspects who were pointing a gun at officers or otherwise posed an imminent threat. Body cameras and better data collection won't eliminate concious or unconcious bias or misconduct, but they can improve accountability while preserving the ability of police to do their jobs effectively.

So what else can be done?

A variety of tactics are available to curb nuisance behavior as well as violent and property crimes in Silver Spring. Some involve more aggressive law enforcement; others do not. Here are some examples of issues facing downtown and what might be done to address them:

Late-night clubs. A handful of bars and nightclubs located south of Wayne Avenue, particularly along Bonifant Street, have generated repeated complaints about noise, disorderly behavior, and even violence in the late evening and early morning hours. The mandatory safety plans proposed by the County Executive are a good idea but other changes to law, policy, and enforcement practices should be on the table.

For example, state and county leaders should consider revising legislation and related policies adopted in 2014 that relaxed restrictions on establishments that serve alcohol, allowing them to stay open until 3 a.m., an hour later than DC or Prince George's County, in hopes of fostering a more vibrant bar and restaurant scene. Aligning closing times with surrounding jurisdictions would avoid making Silver Spring a draw for people from other parts of the region who are specifically looking for places that stay open until the middle of the night. The county also should send code enforcement staff - and, if necessary, police - into establishments to verify compliance with licensing rules.

Homelessness and nuisance offenses. Business leaders and residents complain about homeless people committing nuisance offenses such as public urination and intoxication or camping outdoors on public or private property downtown. Nobody wants to criminalize homelessness, but that doesn't mean that homeless people should be allowed to take over public spaces such as plazas and sidewalks.

The opening of a new shelter on Nebel Street in Rockville brings 200 beds for the homeless that are available at all times of the year. The county should invest in a "sobering center" where homeless people with substance abuse problems can get help instead of going to jail for minor offenses. Montgomery Park Police do not allow homeless people to sleep in parks, calling on trained homeless service advocates to relocate people found in encampments and connect them to services. County police should follow this practice.

Programming, noise, and informal activities in public spaces. Veterans Plaza, the hardscape in front of the Silver Spring Civic Building, has been the site of many complaints about nuisance behavior and sometimes crime of varying seriousness. The county government responded by banning skateboarders from the plaza but allowing religious evangelists who prosyletize with megaphones and street musicians who play through amplifiers.

In my view, the county's approach to issues on the plaza and the area near Fenton and Ellsworth has things backwards. Skateboarders sometimes took over the plaza, preventing other people from using the space, but the county could have allowed skateboarding in designated areas, such as the empty ice rink, to make the activity an attraction for spectators instead of treating it as a nuisance. The more that people use public spaces in ways that do not interfere with other people's enjoyment the better.

Megaphones and amplifiers, on the other hand, generally should be prohibited as allowed by the county's noise ordinance and well-settled case law on noise in public spaces, because they generate a racket that is impossible for anyone passing through the area to avoid or ignore. Noisy activity is not criminal but it seriously degrades the experience of walking through downtown Silver Spring and contributes to the feeling that nobody is enforcing standards of behavior in the area.

Placemaking and the "built environment." Brookings emphasizes the potential for investments in placemaking, such as public art and tree plantings, to address perceptions of neglect that accompany and encourage crime and disorder. Placemaking also can boost pedestrian activity, which helps to deter crime. The recently approved Silver Spring master plan recommends a "green loop" to connect downtown with safe and inviting sidewalks, parks and public spaces, with a civic improvement fund subsidized by new development to help finance these additions. Bonifant and some other downtown streets are poorly lit and would benefit from streetscape and facade improvements. If disputes over governance issues can be resolved, a business improvement district (BID) for Silver Spring could focus more resources on placemaking and programming for downtown businesses and events.

Past "broken windows" and "defund the police"

The idea that visible disorder and neglect in public places contributes to more serious offenses, known as "broken windows" theory, has fallen into disrepute due to its association with racially discriminatory practices, such as disproportionate targeting of motorists and pedestrians for minor offenses and "stop and frisk" policies applied aggressively in neighborhoods with a large proportion of people of color. Of course, policing aimed at curb nuisance offenses can take different forms, and recognizing the damage caused by disorder does not resolve the question of how to deal with it.

A review of the academic literature on the subject concluded that when police avoid the sweeping use of aggressive tactics to maintain order but work to reduce nuisance behavior and quality of life issues with a combination of other tactics they can reduce more serious crime. Some of these tactics are about building relationships within the community, but some involve the targeted application of conventional enforcement resources, e.g., cracking down on disorderly behavior around crime "hot spots." This approach represents a synthesis of "community oriented policing," which is derived partly from broken windows theory, and "problem oriented policing," which focuses on identifying and addressing specific public safety issues in a community. But no matter what it's called, if it's going to be effective it involves contact between police and members of the community.

Law enforcement has a role in addressing crime and nuisance behavior, but that doesn't mean we have to accept practices that facilitate police misconduct or invite racial discrimination. The main thing is to acknowledge that crime and disorder is a problem in downtown Silver Spring. Offenses like public urination should not be considered trivial, because if people are reluctant to visit or locate a business in Silver Spring because these kinds of behavior make it unpleasant or uncomfortable, that hurts all of us.

Most of all, Silver Spring would benefit from a clear sense that our leaders recognize the gravity of the problem with crime and disorder and are taking decisive action to address them. Progressives - especially the ones who also consider themselves urbanists - who are uncomfortable with embracing law enforcement solutions to these issues should consider that support for much-needed reforms to policing depends on public support, which is unlikely to be sustainable if reform is taken to mean that obnoxious and even dangerous behavior in our urban centers has to be accepted.

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