Business leaders in downtown Silver Spring say they are worried about a spike in crime recently that they say has harmed quality of life there. At the same time, advocacy groups and at least one lawmaker are concerned about the potential response.

Violent crime has risen across Montgomery County over the past two years, marked by an increase in homicides, non-fatal shootings and robberies. In Silver Spring, the crimes have included shootings that have damaged downtown businesses, such as one that happened around 2 a.m. Monday on Georgia Avenue following a fight. No one was injured. Additionally a man was stabbed to death last week near the intersection of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, following a drug deal that went bad.

Zed Mekonnen, who owns Zed’s Café, said his business was about a block away from the area where the most recent shooting happened. The restaurant wasn’t damaged, but he said it’s still worrying.

“There’s no comfort in that. The surge in criminal activities is a concern to everyone,” he said this week.

Jane Redicker, the president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, said on Monday that the chamber has been discussing the rise in crime with Montgomery County police officers for several months, and they have since formed a crime suppression task force to increase the number of officers on the street.

“Our chamber has a security task force that is property owners and property managers who meet once a month,” she said. And so partly in those conversations partly in other conversations, we talked about our concerns, and we heard more about how this is rolling out from the police perspective and what they’re doing.”

Last week, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said during a press conference that prosecutors from his office were involved in the task force and had worked on 10 cases in which criminals were charged, mainly for drug offenses that have happened near the Silver Spring Civic Center.

In an interview with Bethesda Beat, McCarthy said the task force isn’t focused on prosecuting cases of simple drug possession.

“We’re talking about selling drugs and distributing drugs,” he said. “We’re talking about something that’s changing the quality of life in Silver Spring.”

McCarthy said the goal of the task force is to improve quality of life for patrons in downtown Silver Spring.

“The objective is to make the situation better so that businesses thrive, the community thrives and people are safe when they come downtown to have dinner or to shop or come down to listen to a band…,” he said.

Redicker said police have been telling business owners that criminals used to operate in small groups of two or three, but lately the groups have been larger.

When asked whether it was fair to single out Silver Spring as a location where crime has increased the most recently, Redicker pointed to statistics provided in a County Council staff report for the Public Safety Committee last week. Among the numbers are that 19 of the 38 privately made guns recovered this year were recovered in the 3rd District (Silver Spring, Fairland, Burtonsville) – the most in any of the six police districts in the county. Additionally, the report states that there have been 366 auto thefts in the 3rd District this year, compared with the district with the next highest total, the 2nd District (North Bethesda, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac, Kensington), which has had 215.

Emily Bruno, the owner of Denizens Brewing Co. on East West Highway, told Bethesda Beat this week that she thinks county leaders are more tolerant of crime in Silver Spring, compared with other areas of the county.

“I think there are certain levels of activity, whether it’s people hanging out on the street, whether it’s drug use, whether it’s like petty crime…. that the county does not tolerate in Bethesda and other places, that it does tolerate here, and I don’t know why that is, because they should be considering these two urban centers (Bethesda and Silver Spring) right next to the D.C. border, as kind of their two main urban core areas,” she said.

Bruno said it’s important for people to realize that the increase in crime is a multi-year trend that she’s observed since Denizens opened in 2014. They experienced it firsthand last year when the bar was burglarized, and Bruno said they also had problems last year with people loitering in their beer garden overnight.

“I was told that [police officers] weren’t allowed to remove anyone from private property,” she said.

Some county stakeholders don’t agree that simply adding more police officers to the streets of Silver Spring is the answer. Carlean Ponder, of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, told Bethesda Beat on Thursday she worries that adding more officers in Silver Spring engenders “tough on crime” rhetoric that became popular in the 1990s.

“For some people, maybe walking down the street and seeing a line of armed policemen is comforting. Certainly not for all people in this community, and in the Silver Spring community,” she said.

Ponder said that by virtue of the fact that many businesses are in downtown Silver Spring, there’s more outcry over crime there.

“That’s why you’re gonna have a more vocal response, because of the businesses in downtown Silver Spring that we love and support. I’m not villainizing the businesses, they’re just more vocal,” Ponder said. “They have the capacity to be more vocal. They have the capacity to organize.”

Ponder said that County Executive Marc Elrich has “given lip service” to ideas such as increasing the number of mobile crisis units in the county, but that he hasn’t delivered. 

“We need a holistic approach to public safety. I would hate to see the business community support the kind of stuff that we have in this country, that has proven to fail, in terms of one, actually providing community safety, and two, addressing underlying needs in terms of the reason that people are driven to violence to begin with,” she said.

Up until this year the county had only one mobile crisis team, but two new three-member teams launched in August due to a $1.9 million grant.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich’s office, told Bethesda Beat they planned on Friday to respond.

State Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Democrat who represents Silver Spring and lives downtown, said many of the recent incidents of violence are concerning, but the focus should be on the causes of the violence and the solutions “rather than inciting fear or impugning downtown Silver Spring.”

“We have to look at it comprehensively. We have to look at the types of programming and activities and job solutions that we have for our young people,” she said.

Wilkins said some of the rhetoric she’s heard recently about Silver Spring has been hyperbolic, although she did not criticize any county officials by name.

“I would hardly call Silver Spring lawless. I would hardly say that there’s an open-air drug market. Absolutely there are incidents that are taking place, and I’m not questioning that. But I think we should focus on the facts and the solutions and just work together on comprehensive ways to mitigate the instances that are taking place,” she said.

Wilkins said Silver Spring has been under a microscope lately because of its importance within the county and the state, but that the increase in crime there is no different from an overall increase in crime across the county recently.

Redicker said it isn’t clear whether the rise in violence is affecting the bottom line of businesses, because they’ve already been struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, it’s created a general sense of fear, she said.

“We don’t hear from people about how it’s affecting their bottom line. But what we hear from them is that they’re concerned. They’re afraid for their employees and they want something done,” she said.

Redicker, who has led the Silver Spring chamber for 16 years, said that between the crime increase and the pandemic, it has been one of the most challenging times she’s seen in the community there, she said.

“Public safety and safety of our community is very much a public welfare issue. And [county officials] have an obligation to lead the way,” she said. “And this could be their opportunity to be the first to find some solutions that maybe we don’t know about maybe we haven’t tried yet, but we could try.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com