When the Prince George’s County Council in Maryland reconvenes in January, its members will confront an issue intertwined with two of the Washington suburb’s hot-button issues: development and public safety.
Average response times for emergency calls in two police districts that cover swaths of rural Prince George’s ticked above 10 minutes for the first nine months of 2019. If the trend continued in the final quarter, it could trigger a law that requires developers building subdivisions in those districts to pay a fine.
If average annual police response times go above 12 minutes, there would be a moratorium on residential development, according to a memo filed by the county’s planning board last month.
“This is the first time we know of that the 2005 legislation has been triggered,” said County Council Chair Todd Turner, D-District 4. “There are a number of policy options that we are going to have to consider.”
Those options include passing legislation to increase the amount of time that police have to respond to calls, adding and staffing a new police station, and boosting overall officer recruitment, Turner said. Council staffers, he added, are researching why the law triggering penalties was passed, and police are recalculating average response times to clarify whether they are problematic.
Council records show that an initial law establishing the 10-minute requirement passed in 2004 and was amended in 2005 to allow developers to pay a fee if they wanted to continue building after police failed to meet the guideline.
The planning memo was first reported by NBC4.
Turner said the response-time issue will probably spur more conversations on the dais in the coming year about the pace and nature of development. Some lawmakers have said there is a lack of vision in terms of the county’s residential growth and have argued for a pause.
Rural and urban areas
Police Chief Hank Stawinski said a “blanket response time” does not make sense in a county of nearly 500 square miles that has rural and urban tiers and widely varying crime rates.
In the two police districts mentioned in the planning board memo — Districts 5 and 7 — response times are consistently between 10 and 12 minutes, Stawinski said. Crime rates in both districts are trending down.
Police District 5 serves mostly rural areas including Clinton, Marlton, Eagle Harbor and parts of Upper Marlboro. District 7, which was opened in 2015, covers Accokeek, Fort Washington and Brandywine.
There are an average of three crimes per day in District 5 and an average of one crime per day in District 7, Stawinski said, compared with an average of eight crimes per day in District 1, which includes Hyattsville and Bladensburg and is one of the busiest stations.
Stawinski said he would rather see the council focus on sector-by-sector response times, because they could more easily determine times that make sense in terms of population and geography.
If the law remains in place and average response times continue to exceed 10 minutes, developers who build new units would be fined $4,968 per unit, said Deputy Planning Director Derick Berlage.
Council member Thomas Dernoga, D-District 1, pointed out that calls for services across the county – including in Districts 5 and 7 — decreased from 2017 to 2018, according to data provided to the council during the budget process. The number of officers increased from 1,470 in 2006 to 1,786 to 2016, according to that data.
Dernoga, who was on the council when the 2004 law passed, argued that the increased response times are evidence of “out-of-control development, and the degree to which developers control the county.”
“Sprawl has created a response-time failure and we have a choice to rein in unsustainable growth or misspend tax dollars,” Dernoga said.
Council member Monique Anderson-Walker, D-District 8, who represents areas covered by both the District 5 and District 7 stations, said she strongly disagrees with any move to expand permissible response times beyond 10 minutes.
“That’s not the answer — if anything, we need to get response times lower,” said Walker, who called for increased police presence at the District 7 station and said state troopers, not county police, should patrol crash-prone Indian Head Highway.
Stawinski said that although this is the first time the law has been triggered, he does not think response times have risen dramatically. Instead, he said, better data collection means they are more accurately recorded now than in the past.
He also said that because rural areas now covered by District 7 used to be part of District 4, which also includes more densely populated areas, response times for the more spread-out areas were averaged with those from closer in. When the District 7 station was created, its response times were calculated separately from the District 4 data.
Upper Marlboro resident Carolyn Lowe, who runs a weekly District 5 coffee club where residents meet to discuss local concerns, said she has confidence in police and has not experienced any issues with response times. But she said she hopes the memo prompts conversations about how development can be done “in lockstep with infrastructure improvements,” including expanding congested roads and crowded schools to serve the residents that new homes will bring.
“I don’t know what the answer is . . . but I know something needs to be done,” she said.
David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce, said the memo raises questions about the kind of development the county needs, noting the importance of building around the county’s 15 Metro stations.
“The business community wants a balanced discussion,” Harrington said. “It shouldn’t be ‘growth’ or ‘no growth.’ ”