CLINTON, Md. (AP) — Angela Alsobrooks hears first-person accounts from crime victims as she shuttles among community meetings, picnics and neighborhood gatherings.
There was the mother who said she was too frightened to drive at night after a BB punctured her car window while her child was strapped inside. And the woman who was scared of sleeping in her own home following an unnerving break-in attempt.
Alsobrooks says the anecdotes help underscore one of her chief priorities: community prosecution.
In her first eight months as state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Alsobrooks says she’s divided the more than two dozen prosecutors in the office’s major crimes division among six police districts. The prosecutors handle cases specific to their geographic areas so that they can get more familiar with the officers who patrol the area and the people who live there.
She has also given more attention to a specialized community prosecution unit that looks at quality-of-life concerns, such as shuttering illegally operating nightclubs and crack houses, helping crime victims with social services and discouraging truancy.
“It allows us to build trust with the community,” Alsobrooks said in an interview. “We encounter many of our community members in court as witnesses, as jurors, and I think it really helps us enhance the quality of our prosecutions when we develop relationships with them.”
The goals are to forge bonds that deter county residents, particularly teenagers, from crime, and to promote neighborhood change that extends beyond arrests and convictions. She’s also trying to encourage a perception of prosecutors as social workers, friends and even people who can help improve county services.
“You see me in court, you’re going to at least listen to what I’ve got to say. For me, the urban outreach is phenomenal,” said C.T. Wilson, chief of the community prosecution unit, who regularly spends weekend nights keeping tabs on problematic nightclubs.
He said the model turns on its head the skepticism of police and prosecutors. “We’re not all bad guys. In fact, we’re defending you.”
The community outreach could pay dividends in Prince George’s County, which has been riddled with violent crime in 2011.
There were 13 homicides in the first 11 days of the year.
Problems continue: Last week, a 15-year-old boy was charged in the beating death of a 92-year-old neighbor in Forestville. And on Saturday night, a 2-year-old boy playing outside an apartment complex in Landover was shot by a stray bullet. He remained in critical condition Sunday, police said.
The effort is not easy, and there are occasional setbacks.
County prosecutors who had successfully lobbied for a law that targeted violent nightclubs were working to implement the measure this month when a 20-year-old woman was fatally shot outside a dance hall. Alsobrooks said the shooting hit her office hard but is also inspiring her community prosecutors to step up their efforts.
Alsobrooks has been touring the county’s police districts as part of an effort to acquaint herself with the residents.
Recently, she and a group of prosecutors took a van tour of District V, the largest and most rural patrol area in the county at 171 square miles. She rode through neighborhoods dotted with boarded-up homes vulnerable to squatters, past a local strip club and a troubled high school as police described the problems they saw at each place. The experience benefited both police and the prosecutors, who can develop a familiarity with the problems, said police Capt. Jason Bogue.
“We have to work hand-in-hand. Obviously for the most part, most of the time, the police department starts a criminal case for the state,” Bogue said.
Elsie Jacobs, the president of a neighborhood organization in Suitland, said Alsobrooks makes her presence felt at community meetings. She said the office, for instance, agreed to send letters to parents of children who have multiple unexcused absences from school. It was an important symbolic gesture, she said.
“We know nobody’s going to be prosecuted and nothing like that,” she said. “But we’ve got to have some kind of something to get people’s attention about their children being in school.”
Community prosecution had started several years before Alsobrooks took office, but Wilson said before he was essentially working on his own. He says the commitment to the cause has grown significantly in the last several months.
“When she speaks, her voice carries. When I speak, it’s a request: `Hey guys, can we, if you could?”‘ Wilson said. “When she speaks, it’s not really a request.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)