TAKOMA PARK, Md. -- Burglaries. Robberies. Carjackings.
For most people, those are words you read in headlines, but for some Takoma Park residents, they're reality.
Jen Ujifusa tearfully told a packed Takoma Park town hall meeting how being robbed at gunpoint has changed her.
Before the crime on Jan. 11, she says, "I was the kind of person who thought an approaching stranger would ask for directions."
Before the crime, she says, "I never hid from oncoming headlights in bushes, and I never got so freaked out walking home that I went up to stranger's doorsteps to hide from cleaning ladies making three-point turns."
But Ujifusa, like Char Serwa and Mark Ginsburg, who have also been victimized, stood up to ask police chiefs from Takoma Park and neighboring jurisdictions for help.
Serwa, who'd been carjacked, said, "I am now suspicious of every person in every vehicle that comes near me. If we all start acting like getting a gun put in your face is normal, then we should all give up."
Police chiefs from Montgomery and Prince George's counties and D.C. listened as residents voiced their concerns and asked what they could do. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier congratulated the crowd on coming out to show their concern. And she passed this on: Privately owned surveillance cameras, such as the ones at retail outlets and even those installed by homeowners, were proving extremely effective in breaking cases.
"We've actually had people that have installed their own cameras in their homes and been alerted to motion in their home while they're at work, then called the police," she says.
Lanier says the burglars are sometimes caught red-handed.
"We get there, and the bad guy's coming out of the home with a pillow case full of stuff," she says.
Lanier says making those kinds of arrests is a very satisfying feeling.
While residents expressed gratitude to police, they also described getting the sense that some of their concerns were being dismissed, or that crime was to be expected. All of the police in attendance said they understood that perception and reassured the crowd that they don't find any level of crime acceptable.
Maryland State Police Supt. Col. Marcus Brown said that when they heard from the victims Tuesday night, "every officer here cringed" and said the desire to help people avoid becoming crime victims was "why we got into law enforcement. That is why we get so angry - the same way the community does when incidents like this occur."
Over the past five years, crime in the region has dropped. Montgomery County just issued a report showing a dramatic drop in many categories of crime. But the spike that Takoma Park residents have been seeing is real, said Chief Alan Goldberg. He noted some success in closing cases, but expressed frustration because arrests don't always mean criminals stay off the streets.
"I know that at least in one or two cases they've been apprehended three times for the same thing in the last six months. And they're still out," Goldberg says.
The meeting was organized by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a longtime Takoma Park resident who told the crowd he understood their issues. His home had been burglarized more than once. The meeting ended with a pledge to keep the dialogue going.
Ujifusa, who joked that she had a jar of peanut butter in her stolen purse and hoped the robber had a peanut allergy, said criminals had become successful in targeting Takoma Park and worried "word is spreading that those hippies in Takoma make great targets."
Instead, she said, "I want a new rumor to spread" about Takoma Park - "that it's a bad place to be a bad guy."
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