LANHAM, Md. (AP) — Prince George’s County closed out 2010 with its lowest homicide total in a decade, but in the first 11 days of the new year, 13 people have been slain, a surge that has police beefing up patrols and urging the public to talk.

“What this police department needs is your help,” acting Chief Mark Magaw told community leaders in the southernmost Clinton-based district at a meeting Thursday night. “We’re going through a challenge.”

County police investigated 95 homicides in 2010, continuing a steady decrease since 2007 when county police recorded 141. In an attempt to allay fears as the count swiftly rises, police are stressing that the recent slayings were not random and most of victims were targeted in drug-related or personal disputes.

“We don’t want undue fear,” said Maj. Robert Liberati, commander of the Hyattsville district that has seen five of this year’s homicides. “But we want people to be cautious.”

The deaths of two men found miles apart on the same morning last week, each shot to death and with duct tape over their mouths, are the only two cases that appear to be linked.

“There’s no clear-cut connection with the other homicides,” said police spokesman Maj. Andy Ellis. “We’re really somewhat baffled about the timing of all these homicides.”

In one case, police say the resident of a Lanham home fatally shot an intruder. In another, a college student was killed at his home just off campus, in what police said was linked to the sale of marijuana. The death of a woman whose body was found last week in Capitol Heights has now been ruled a homicide. Police have made arrests in at least three of the cases and it is likely that the shooting death during the break-in may be classified as a justifiable homicide.

Residents no longer have the luxury of being silent when they see crime, Claudia Poole of Camp Springs, president of the district’s Citizens Advisory Council told the crowd, calling on them to encourage their communities to speak up.

People are scared because of what they see on the news, but learning that the homicides were not random helps, Poole said.

“But even if they aren’t, we don’t want them in our community,” she said.

In recent days, Magaw, who has been acting as chief since early December, has spoken with state and federal officials and leaders in neighboring jurisdictions seeking help and better coordination. He has also shifted more detectives into the criminal and narcotics divisions.

“A spike is not unusual,” Magaw said. “But whenever you have one you’ve got to step in and stop it.”

Karen DeSha of Bel Air couldn’t sleep or eat after learning Tuesday of the death of her son, 22-year-old Justin DeSha-Overcash, a senior physics and astronomy major at the University of Maryland. He was her rock and made her laugh, but DeSha feels that police have unfairly painted him as just a drug dealer as they try to calm county residents.

“He was not an angel or innocent but this should not define him,” she said. “He may have ended up in a situation because of finances. I wish I’d known.”

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, an extra 150 county, state and municipal officers patrolled in the areas of most of the homicides to track down information, Ellis said.

“This is the beginning of a sustained effort we’re undertaking until this violence is stopped,” he said.

Agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also helping the department investigate the homicides.

This kind of strategy can help, according to University of Maryland criminology professor Gary LaFree.

“Stepped up policing can be effective for homicides related to gangs and drugs,” LaFree said. But it is more difficult to have an impact when the cases involve personal disputes between people who already know each other.

Besides increasing the manpower focusing on these homicides, the department is working with community leaders to encourage the public to come forward with information, Liberati said.

“We depend on the community,” he said. “We can’t be on every street corner.”

New County Executive Rushern Baker said Tuesday on WTOP-FM’s “Ask the Executive” program that the police department’s staffing hasn’t kept up with county’s population growth and despite the deficit the county is facing, funding for public safety will be a priority in the budget process.

In recent months, the county made headlines when the previous county executive and his wife, now serving as a councilwoman, were charged along with police officers and liquor store owners in an ongoing series of public corruption investigations.

But another councilwoman, Karen Toles, doesn’t believe these probes have hurt residents’ trust in county leaders and says the new administration is getting information to the community.

Most constituents she has heard from recently are more concerned about other problems than the killings, Toles said.

“These are isolated incidents, not an attack on the entire community,” Toles said. “They still feel pretty safe in their community knowing that these are specific drug-related activities.”

Toles and Baker visited the Community of Hope church in Hillcrest Heights on Sunday with the district’s police commander to talk to the congregation about the surge in homicides and how members can help.

“I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid to come out and snitch or whatever you want to call it. Just come out and talk,”‘ Toles said. “You have support from your county government.”‘

Community of Hope often helps work out truces between feuding gangs, shares information with police and tries to offer alternatives for young people who may be moving in the wrong direction, according to pastor Rev. Tony Lee. In recent years, the county has seen less crime and Lee hopes that the relationships his
church and others have with police and county officials can help slow the pace of homicides.

“It has us all alarmed,” Lee said. “Our prayer is that it just a spike, and that we can get past the spike.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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