Police crack down on Commerce Ave. apartments: Patrols beefed up around low-income housing (Sunday, August 15, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

WAYNESBORO — When Cpl. Steve Byrd is assigned to the north side of the city on a Saturday evening, he hits four hot spots first.

First he stops at The Quadrangle Apartments, a brick complex on Fourth Street, then 208 Port Republic Road, a privately owned, low-income apartment building and Parkway Village on Hopeman Parkway, another brick subsidized housing complex. Then he approaches 260 N. Commerce Ave., another privately owned, low-income apartment building.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Byrd said, pulling into the lot and greeting a small, stoic boy of about 7 years old in a women’s velvet hat. The child nods and then runs around the back of the yellowing building. More children play in the parking lot, and adults crowd the front and back doorways of the building, sitting on broken lawn chairs and talking.

The back alley is where Eduardo Javier Herrera-Betancourt, called “Piku” around the neighborhood, was stabbed to death in June, according to Waynesboro police reports. David Luna Sanchez and Abeil Javier Vazquez were charged with second-degree murder. Sanchez had beaten and robbed Herrera-Betancourt at the address 18 months before.

When Byrd gets to the Commerce address, he sometimes walks around the dimly lit grime-streaked hallways. Sometimes he doesn’t. He’ll visit the address about a dozen more times before his 12-hour shift ends at 7 a.m.

“We try to keep a presence there,” Byrd said. “I’d rather prevent something from happening than to have to come clean up the chaos.”

Sgt. Kelly Walker said Waynesboro police had been keeping a close watch on the Commerce Avenue address even before June’s stabbing.

Between Jan. 1 and July 21, police logged 220 incidents at 260 N. Commerce. Incidents include both 117 walk-throughs registered with dispatch and 103 responses to requests for service.

The total number of incidents at Commerce Avenue eclipses the 54 calls to 208 Port Republic Road, where a body was found in the nearby South River in May, and 83 in the Quadrangle, the prime police hot spot in the summer of 2008, Walker said.

Walker says frequent visits to North Commerce Ave. have had an impact.

“What we’ve noticed is that when we do more of that, then the calls for service go down,” said Walker, who added there have been fewer incidents at the property since police have increased patrols, especially since the June stabbing.

“When the police are there more, people aren’t going to be drunk and fighting and stabbing each other as much,” he said.


No easy answer

When Byrd gets out of his car for a walk-through, he strolls up stairways and through hallways, past walls marked with spackle patches and fingerprints and around piles of stray panels of siding. He stops to chat with people on the front porch. They make congenial small talk. A boy named Mathew, 9, with a mohawk shows Byrd the temporary scorpion and Jolly Roger tattoos on his neck. He asks Byrd to bring him toy police badge.

Some people staying at the address say the patrol is a drag, as some officers order residents, often leisurely and passive, off the sidewalk and out of doorways.

“Then we won’t have our share of staying outside,” said Shawn Reynolds, who stays with friends and his girlfriend at 260 N. Commerce Ave. without an air conditioning unit. “It gets hot.”

Some of the people staying at the address say the police attention to the building is unwarranted. After all, the people committing violent acts don’t live at the address. Sanchez and Vazquez didn’t.

Property owner and landlord Bobby Jardine understands. He said he knew the low-rent building’s reputation for trouble before he bought it more than a year ago.

“Ninety percent of the time, it’s not tenant-related,” Jardine said. Still, former tenants and friends of tenants tend to wander back to the property to socialize or settle personal scores. “If they got kicked out, where are they going to go? Port Republic? Same problems, same issues. It’s spread out over houses.”


Sense of comfort

Jardine said the department sends him a weekly report of police activity at his apartments, and occasionally he calls police to enforce trespassing warrants if evicted tenants stir up trouble. He said he welcomes the police patrol as a crime deterrent.

So does Tammy Painter, the live-in girlfriend of the late Herrera-Betancourt, who was with him when he was stabbed.

She said the police attention is as much a comfort as she expects. She lives at 260 N. Commerce Ave. with her daughter, who has epilepsy, and Herrera-Betancourt used to offer a sense of protection.

“He was my best friend. I feel less safe because he’s not here,” Painter said, adding that police patrols offer a sense of comfort. “The more they patrol, the better I feel. I don’t think it’s ever too much.”

Still, tenants agree that barring outsiders isn’t a simple solution. Residents of the buildings often have friends and family who stay over peacefully. Painter’s young adult daughter, Leslie Painter, sometimes stays with her boyfriend, Shawn Reynolds, in her mother’s apartment, sometimes in other apartments.

Leslie was close with her mother’s boyfriend and called him a “sweetheart,” but said much of the violent crime she’s seen around the building escalated quickly from simple conflicts.

“Before the cops started through here heavy patrolling, there was a lot of fights,” she said, explaining residents are now vigilant to prevent fights.


Turning it around

Leslie remembers the week after Herrera-Betancourt’s death where, in accordance with his Puerto Rican culture, his friends held seven nights of candlelight vigils in his memory. One night, a rowdy visitor wandered onto the property and tried to instigate a fight. She said Reynolds and other men stepped in and removed him from the grounds.

“If anything happens, people will be right here to stop it,” Leslie said.

Sgt. Walker said this is the kind of mentality that helped reclaim the Jackson Avenue neighborhood between the A Street Creek and 4th Street, once called “The Philippines,” and much of the Port Republic neighborhood from drugs and violence in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

“That’s usually where we have the best results, where we have a cooperative effort among citizens and police,” Walker said. “What we hope to achieve is a lower need for police response.”

He said the resolve of residents can turn around a neighborhood within weeks and months, not necessarily years.


About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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