LANDOVER, Md. – Palmer Park residents tend to have one of two reactions when Cpl. Tony Avendorph’s patrol car nears them: scatter in all directions or stop and say “hi.”
He says either reaction is a good one. Either people are afraid of him or they view him as a friend.
Avendorph, 49, is one of 90 officers selected to serve as community policemen in Prince George’s County. The program, started in the county in 1990 but partly funded by the Justice Department since 1994, fights crime by putting officers on beats and in offices in neighborhood trouble spots.
The Justice Department set aside $1.4 billion to expand the program in its fiscal year 1998 budget by hiring about 17,000 more police officers. That would bring the national total to 80,000. It is unclear how many of those officers would be hired in Maryland.
The county project was originally intended to cater only to apartment complexes. Policemen set up offices in apartment buildings and were solely responsible for policing that area.
In the past year, the county program has expanded to shopping centers and community centers.
The goal is to have officers work in a partnership with community members to solve problems. Through community meetings, citizen surveys and conversations with residents, officers work to identify and understand the communities they patrol.
Sgt. Dean Jones, supervisor of the community policing project in the Palmer Park district, said people were once skeptical of the program – even fellow police officers.
“People thought we went out and kissed babies, but we fight crime,” Jones said. “We get the community involved and clean the place up.”
Avendorph is assigned to the Palmer Park Shopping Center and two apartment complexes.
“It’s like a gang,” said Avendorph, who worked for four years on an anti-gang unit in south central Los Angeles before coming to the county. “You have to establish territory, so I had to make this my territory.”
Every day, Avendorph walks around the Belle Haven apartment complex and the Palmer Park Shopping Center. His other area is the Summerfield complex, which houses military personnel and their families. The new Washington Redskins stadium towers over the community.
As he rides by in his police cruiser, residents of Belle Haven wave and motion toward the car.
Avendorph waves and knows many of them by name.
“To the young kids, I’m not the enemy like it was before,” Avendorph says. “I grew up in Chicago and I hated the police.”
One of the men standing outside is Edwin Locust, 19. Avendorph hosts Locust’s parole meetings in his office in the Palmer Park Shopping Center and encouraged Locust to get a job at Taco Bell.
When asked about Avendorph and his effect on the community, Locust speaks highly of the 28-year veteran of law enforcement.
“He’s supposed to help kids get jobs,” Locust says. “You can tell when he’s being serious.”
The Palmer Park Shopping Center sits across the street from the police station. Despite its proximity to the station, the shopping center has had a crime problem, Avendorph said.
But things have gotten better since Avendorph set up an office in the center last summer and began patrolling the area regularly, a store owner said.
Hae Park, 38, owns a seafood restaurant and food shop in the center.
“There were a lot of drug problems,” Park said. “When he came around, no more drugs. No one is hanging around.”
Avendorph uses the metaphor of the cockroach to explain how community policing can be effective.
“When I leave, the drug dealers come [out] just like cockroaches come out when the lights are turned off,” he said.
The more he patrols the area, the more problems drug dealers have operating, he said.
Tenants of the complexes are happy to have Avendorph around.
“Before, I wouldn’t let my kids come outside,” said Tracy Thomas, 30, who lives in the Belle Haven apartment complex.
More than $60 million in federal funds has been given to Maryland police departments and law enforcement agencies since 1994 for community policing purposes, said Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman.
But because community policing concentrates on very small areas within communities, specific numbers are not available on whether or not crime has dropped as a result, said Cpl. Timothy Estes, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police Department.
Among the county police and sheriff’s departments in Maryland that have community policing are: Frederick, Harford, Howard, Queen Anne’s, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, Washington, Worcester and Allegany counties.