Community celebrates freedom after drug dealers ousted

DAMASCUS, Md. – Residents at the Damascus Gardens apartment complex had had enough.

For years, they lived in buildings infested with drug dealers, and not much was done about it.

“There was a lot of violence and fights, especially in the summertime when it got hot,” says Ronnie Johnson. He’s lived in the complex for eight years and his girlfriend Kim Hash has lived there for 20 years.

But life at the complex changed in 2011 when the Montgomery County Police Department started the Drug Market Initiative: a joint effort with residents to rid the complex of drug pushers.

“Before, the community wouldn’t even call the police. They felt disenfranchised,” says police Captain Marcus Jones. “The drug world became just a part of everyday life, and they just dealt with it.”

Jones says they’ve succeeded in ousting all known drug dealers from the complex.

Saturday afternoon, officers from the county joined residents to celebrate their achievements.

“It’s a celebration of the community being freed from an open-air drug market that’s held them in captivity for the past 15-plus years,” Jones says.

Along with county police, the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office and Department of Health and Human Services along with the Up-County Regional Services Center have also partnered in the program. It’s coordinated by Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, and is sponsored by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The initiative started in March 2011 with an eight-month investigation, which identified 17 drug dealers operating out of the complex. Eight higher-level drug dealers were prosecuted, and nine others were able to avoid charges by agreeing to seek help, working with the community, and by not committing any more crimes. Of those nine, one in the group was later arrested for a drug-related offense, according to police.

“From a violence standpoint, and from any major drug activity, none of that exists at this point in time,” Jones says about the complex.

Residents say they’ve seen a major difference.

“I’ve been here three years. And when I first moved here we were working on getting things controlled,” says resident Kim Williams. “I think they’ve done a really good job of cleaning things up.”

Despite the success, Jones says the partnership with residents can get stronger.

“I can’t say that everyone in here is trusting in law enforcement, but we’re building on that,” he says. “We have to continue to make that happen.”

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