Living 'Uptown'

Living 'Uptown'

Shootings and assaults are commonplace near public housing projects.

During a recent Sunday afternoon, Officer Gerald Ford was relaxing on the couch in his living room. He was scrolling through calls for service on his police-issue laptop computer. Several calls on the west end. One in Arlandria. Nothing in the area.

But then, there was a frantic knock at the door.

It was a woman who lived a few doors down. She was hysterical, and her arms were flailing into the humid summer air. She said three sisters were harassing her and her children, calling them names and hurling insults. She didn't know what to do, and she wanted to talk to Ford about it. He told her that he would come to her place in a moment, and then he closed the door.

He grabbed his badge. He holstered his gun. He checked the laptop again, and then Officer Ford went on patrol.

"They say 'Neighborhood is out' when they see me leaving my place," Ford said, walking through the James Bland public housing development. "That's what they call me, 'Neighborhood.' They like to keep track of where I am, and I like to keep track of where they are."

Ford lives in the public housing development, one of the city's most dangerous areas. In the past two months, 11 acts of violent crime have been reported in the neighborhood, including three shootings, a carjacking, a bank robbery, an armed robbery and several assaults. As a live-in resident of the public housing development, Ford is on the front lines of community policing in the city.

"This job is not for everybody," he said. "It's not easy, but I like what I do."

He has lived in the 800 block of North Alfred Street for eight years, the longest serving residential police officer on the force. Neighbors know him by sight, and his constant patrols are meant to be a proactive measure against crime. Since moving to the development, he has been able to reduce crime in the area. But the weekly crime reports released by the Alexandria Police Department paint a disturbing portrait of the neighborhood, one that Ford struggles against every day.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD where public housing is clustered between the Braddock Road Metro station and Washington Street is burdened with persistent crime. Unlike other areas of the city where neighborhoods are known by names, this area defies description.

Ford calls it "uptown" because one of the developments that is located there is called Samuel Madden Uptown, originally named to distinguish it from Samuel Madden Downtown — the current location of Chatham Square.

The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority operates 365 units in the area, each one housing an average of three residents. Staff in City Hall and police officers on the beat will privately admit the connection between public housing and violent crime, and recent reports of crime indicate a strong correlation. But ARHA chief executive officer William Dearman gets upset when neighbors in wealthy condominiums blame residents of public housing for problems with crime.

"They want to point the finger at public housing residents, and I think that's wrong," Dearman said. "Seventy-five percent of my residents are employed, and they are just as upset about the crime that happens here. They want to live in a safe neighborhood just like everybody else."

But people who live uptown are concerned about their safety, and they fear that crime will spiral out of control if something isn't done to address the problems.

"In the past five years, I've noticed a significant increase in crime," said Amy Harris-White, who lives in the area. "People are fed up, and nothing seems to get done."

In February, after a murder in the Andrew Adkins Public Housing Development, Vice Mayor Del Pepper appeared at a meeting of the Inner-City Civil Association to speak to worried neighbors. She assured residents that the city was doing everything in its power to solve persistent violent crime in the area. The meeting went on for several hours, and Pepper had to walk alone to her car in the dark.

"I felt very uneasy walking from the meeting at the Hopkins House to my car," she said. "So I can imagine how people who live there must feel."

Patrick Traylor, who lives across the street from where the murder happened, became concerned about crime trends in the neighborhood.

"The low point came after the homicide, which was followed by three drive-by shootings," Traylor said. "But this summer, the police presence has increased significantly, and I think that has improved the situation considerably."

SOME RESIDENTS who live near the public housing units blame ARHA, saying that the federally-funded agency is not adequately enforcing its own rules.

"I believe that a lot of crime in the area happens because ARHA does not take action," said Harris-White.

The Alexandria Police Department circulates a list that has more than 100 names of individuals who have been banned from ARHA properties. These people have been caught selling drugs or committing violent crimes, and officers keep constant vigilance to make sure that they are not in the housing developments. Residents who live in the neighborhood have tried to get a copy of the list, but have been unable to make any progress to police their own streets.

"We've never been able to get a list from ARHA," said Traylor. "We live there, and we see people coming and going every day. We would be happy to help out if he had a list with some names or pictures. But we haven't been able to get anything like that."

Those whose names appear on the list — people who have been banned from ARHA properties — are often savvy about defying attempts to keep them out of the public housing developments.

"There are two of them right there," said Ford, pointing toward two young men who had been barred from ARHA properties after they had been caught dealing drugs. "But they are standing on the sidewalk, which is public property. There's nothing I can do about that."

FORD ALWAYS knew that he wanted to be a police officer. Originally from Prince George's County in Maryland, he graduated from Suitland High School in 1988. He took a temporary job working in the security-badge office of the Central Intelligence Agency, but desire to become a police officer drove him to apply to neighboring jurisdictions. In 1994, he was hired by the Alexandria Police Department.

After finishing Police Academy, Ford was assigned to the evening shift patrol and then an automobile theft task force.

One day before roll call, a sergeant took him aside and asked him if he would be interested in becoming a residential police officer, living in a public housing development. Ford initially rejected the idea, but the sergeant offered to let him leave after the first year if he didn't like it. The position had been vacant for more than two years, and the neighborhood was having serious problems.

"It was out of control," said Ford, remembering what the streets were like when he moved to the James Bland public housing development in the late 1990s. When it became clear that Ford meant business and would be a visible force, neighborhood crimes dropped significantly.

"Eight years ago, you couldn't bike, walk or jog through this neighborhood without being assaulted," he said. "Are there still issues and problems? Yes, but we've made a lot of changes — and my work here is not done."

Crime statistics from the Alexandria Police Department show a dramatic decrease in violent crimes after Ford moved to the neighborhood. The success he has been able to achieve in the area rests on his approachable personality and his unyielding optimism.

"Officer Ford is the main reason that we have seen a decrease of violent crime in this area," said Mary Garrand, a crime analyst with the Alexandria Police Department.

For Ford, it's all part of a day's work.

"From the beginning, I took the position that I would get to know the people out here," he said. "I have to be a social worker, a father, a brother. Sometimes I just listen."

POLICE REPORTS INDICATE that many of those arrested for crimes that happen inside the public housing developments come from other neighborhoods. They arrive in uptown looking for the action they perceive to be available in the projects. Cars endlessly cruise Alfred Street, where the highest concentration of public housing is located.

"There are people who come into this area that should not be here," said Ford. "Somehow, we have to change the minds of the young people in Alexandria. They've got to understand that there's more to life than hanging out on Alfred Street. But for too many of them, this is it."

Although Ford has been able to significantly reduce crime in the neighborhood after moving in eight years ago, violence remains ubiquitous.

"The ghetto is not a place; it's a state of mind," said Marlo Ford, who moved into the James Bland public housing project after marrying Ford last month. "If we don't break this cycle, then what are we going to do?"

But breaking the cycle of violent crime associated with public housing in Alexandria is a tall order, and realizing change will take generations to accomplish.

"This is not TV; this is real life," said Ford. "Things don't get solved in an hour."

SOLVING PROBLEMS is Ford's forté, and at least one problem was solved within an hour. After talking to the woman who reported being harassed by three sisters, he walked through the public housing complex looking for the women.

He knew exactly who they were and what they looked like. He knew that they did not live in the development, but visited friends there often. And he knew right where to find them.

"If I start getting complaints, you know me, I'll come down like a hammer," he told the girl.

She told Ford about a disagreement that they had a few days before and expressed frustration with the situation. After a few minutes, she agreed to stay away from the woman.

He didn't keep her long, though. She just got a new job and Ford did not want to make her late for work. But even after solving that problem, several more emerged almost immediately. People are always knocking on his door or stopping him on the street.

"I am able to get a jump start on problems before they reach a boiling point," he said. "Those are the sorts of things that don't necessarily get documented when you look at crime statistics."