BERLIN – Like residents in similar communities all over the country, Berlin residents turned out in droves on Tuesday in Henry Park to celebrate “National Night Out,” but the annual event took on more meaning this week with an all out war declared on open-air drug dealing on the east side of town earlier this spring.
Residents in Berlin and other communities in Worcester County including Ocean City and Snow Hill, for example, locked their doors, turned on their outside lights and got back out in their neighborhoods to participate in 26th annual National Night Out on Tuesday. Similar events took place in around 10,000 communities across the country.
The National Night Out program is designed to heighten crime and drug prevention awareness, strengthen neighborhood spirit, foster an improved relationship between the community and its police force and, perhaps most importantly, send a message to criminals letting them know the neighborhoods are organizing and fighting back. The latter is going on to some degree already in Berlin with a campaign launched this spring targeting open-air drug dealing in known trouble spots on the east side of Berlin.
While it is too early to judge the success of the war on drug dealing in Berlin being waged by the state’s attorney’s office, several local law enforcement agencies and community support networks, Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said this week indications this week point to early success of the program.
“It’s doing what it was set up to do,” he said. “Do we have a long way to go still? Absolutely, but everything that was discussed and put into place is happening already.”
Starting in March, the multi-agency operation began with undercover officers from Berlin, the Maryland State Police, the Ocean City Police Department and even Somerset County all making undercover drug buys from known dealers in Berlin. All in all, the officers were able to make buys from 11 individuals, nine of whom had been convicted before and two of whom were identified as dealers for the first time.
Under the guise of the initiative, the first-timers were given a second chance to avoid prosecution and harsh penalties by buying into a program of rehabilitation and community support. However, harsh treatment was promised for the known repeat offenders, nearly all of whom have since been rounded up, according to Downing.
“I’m pretty sure they are all incarcerated now,” said Downing. “The important thing is what happens to them next. The big answer will come when these folks go through the prosecution phase. Collectively, we want to take them off the streets and we won’t be able to gage the success of this initiative until this first group goes through the process.”
Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd recently went out to the battleground to witness what was going on first-hand. While Todd said progress is being made, he acknowledged there was much work yet to be done.
“We’re certainly seeing a vast improvement, but the problem is not completely abated yet,” he said. “I sat on park bench in Henry Park the other day from 4:30 to 9 p.m. after I got some information the dealers had moved from the corner and were setting up shop in the park. I sat up there a long time and a few cars went by slowly, but when they saw me sitting there, they just kept on going.”
Todd said he and his staff meet with the Berlin Police on a weekly basis to review the number of calls for service, where they are coming from and the types of incidents they refer to. He also meets regularly with the property managers of the apartment complexes in the area to get their take on the situation.
“We are still doing our best to keep the open-air drug market out of that community,” he said. “With that being said, we aren’t necessarily looking at what happens today, tomorrow or even next week. This is about how things will have changed months from now, or even a year from now.”
Long-term goals notwithstanding, Todd said already the aggressive campaign against drugs and crime in the east Berlin neighborhoods is paying dividends.
“If you drive through Flower Street or Bay Street one night around dusk or even just after dark, you’ll see people pushing strollers, walking dogs, a lot more of what we were hoping to see out there,” he said. “There’s a lot more family-type activity going on there, which is a good sign. Has it turned around completely? No, but we feel like we’re getting somewhere.”
For at least one night this week, the area was awash in family-style activities with a strong emphasis on community and faith with the return of National Night Out. Regardless of the success or failure of the war on open-air drug dealing in Berlin, Tuesday’s National Night Out presented an opportunity for open-air fun and games for residents in troubled communities often afraid of walking their own streets.
“The big mission here is to get everybody to know they are a vital part of their community,” said Downing this week. “This is about quality of life. This is about getting people out of their homes and away from the suspicion and fear and out in the open where they can feel safe and interact with their neighbors.”