A dead body is a hell of a wakeup call.
Stefon Powell, 22, had been living in Camden College Park before police discovered his corpse Jan. 1 between two bullet-riddled cars in the complex’s parking lot.
His killer is still at large, and Powell’s shooting was the crest of a wave of crime that had been crashing over Camden — just three miles off this university’s campus — for months. Break-ins had been occurring at the apartments at an unusually high rate since October, with the building witnessing as many as three breaking-and-entering cases in a single day on Dec. 1.
But despite the crime reports, residents said the building’s owners refused to respond to complaints about the thefts. Leaving gates broken, neglecting to hire a security guard and failing to address other lapses in security, the management fostered an environment that left Camden susceptible to tragedy, resident Cory Sanders said.
“There was absolutely no security,” Sanders said. “One break-in, I can deal with, because that’s the world we live in. But when you have numerous break-ins during the day within hours of each other? That’s when it became a concern for myself and other residents.”
It wasn’t until scores of articles about “the county’s first death of the year” went to print that Camden Property Trust took note of the raised voices, Sanders said. It sent a representative to a meeting of the Camden College Park Civic Association, a group Sanders formed out of frustration with the situation.
“We told management there were issues, but it got blown off until the homicide happened,” Sanders said. “Once the homicide happened, the police get involved. The media get involved. People look bad.”
Yet after the furor died down, Camden management appeared to lose interest once again. Emails went unanswered and meetings unattended, despite what Sanders said were the Civic Association’s best efforts to make contact.
Growing desperate, residents reached out to the city for backup.
College Park officials sent a letter to Camden Property Trust Regional Vice President Richard Key — responsible for managing the College Park property — requesting a meeting to discuss resident concerns.
At the town hall April 7, Key sat opposite the mayor and eight council members responding to the outlined complaints.
“Our goal is to have a harmonious relationship with the community of College Park,” Key said at the meeting. “I will make sure we get a written response to the mayor about what we’re doing to make sure College Park is a great place to live.”
Since then, the management has hired a security guard, improved the lighting, installed deadbolts and implemented key fobs, Key said at the meeting.
Key did not respond to Diamondback requests for comment.
However, Sanders maintains it shouldn’t have taken a homicide and the formation of a civic association for Camden management and local government to step in.
“The city should have paid more attention to Camden,” Sanders said. “It was mind-boggling that the City Council saw 12 break-ins on a police report and didn’t step in [themselves].
“You don’t wait until a homicide to start asking questions.”
Sophomore physiology and neurobiology major Michael Sanders was sitting in his apartment in College Park Towers a few weeks ago when three armed men burst through his door.
“They came in and basically asked for our possessions — demanded, I should say,” Sanders said. “They all had hoods and ski masks on, so we couldn’t identify them very well.”
Brandishing a knife and what appeared to be a gun, the intruders followed Sanders as he woke his roommates and handed over property.
When Sanders attempted to wrestle the knife from one of them, they fled.
“It’s been a couple weeks now, and [Prince George’s Police] still have no lead on where or how they got in,” Sanders said. “They don’t have very good security.”
The incident instilled fear in other students living in the building. Caroline Cummings, a sophomore journalism major whose apartment is located near Sanders’, said she and her roommates became more cautious after the burglary.
“A lot of times we left the door open, but now we’re very aware of locking our doors,” Cummings said. “We’re scared of something like that happening.”
While Sanders’ roommate’s mother wrote a letter to management and Prince George’s County Police to see what measures could be taken to identify a suspect and prevent future incidents, she has yet to hear anything back, Sanders said.
“In light of what happened, something else could be done,” Cummings said. “There’s some small things that they could do to make it feel more safe.”
Though College Park Towers uses a key fob system that requires residents to gain entrance to the building through personalized electronic devices, its security system is lacking, Sanders said.
“They could do more,” he said. “They just remodeled the entire lobby, which they had to have shelled out for, and that money could be better used on security than cosmetics.”
College Park Towers combines the key fobs with security cameras and exterior lighting to prevent crime, board president Jory Schuick said.
“We’re constantly talking to our tenants to see what other improvements we can make to make people feel safe,” Schuick said. “Our tenants feel pretty safe and pretty comfortable in our buildings.”
College Park Towers also pays two to three “security monitors” to patrol its parking lots and hallways from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., Schuick said.
“There’s a maintenance guy who wanders around,” Cummings said. “He’s not a security guard by any means, but he’s aware of the situation.”
But Sanders and Cummings said they wish College Park Towers would take an approach more similar to the University View’s, where security guards man a desk in the main lobby 24 hours a day.
“I know [rent at] Knox is cheaper, but one security officer is pretty affordable,” Sanders said. “Just having someone in the front lobby all the time would be beneficial.”
When junior mechanical engineering major Anthony Hough paid a friend to watch his dog last semester, he didn’t give his friend a key to his University Club apartment.
Instead, he texted a short list of instructions.
“If you push on the door with your hand, it moves about an inch, and you can push a card in and it pops the door open,” Hough said. “It’s faster to do that than use a key.”
All locked interior doors in the building are the same way, Hough said. Though it doesn’t concern him because most residents are fellow students, it makes him nervous when the exterior doors fail to lock as well — something he said happens fairly often.
“The side door is always unlocked,” Hough said. “It seems like they try and fix it, but every couple weeks it breaks again.”
Senior criminology and criminal justice major Eryn McKenzie, who also lives in University Club, said she and her roommates have asked the management to address the entryway multiple times, but nothing has changed.
“We always make sure that our door is locked, because that door is just open,” McKenzie said. “They keep trying new things, but either someone keeps breaking it or it’s really bad.”
University Communities, the company that owns the property, places special emphasis on lock inspections, Director of Leasing and Marketing Keona Lee said.
“We do invest a significant amount of money in managing our access controls,” Lee said. “We do building inspections, and if there are any doors or locks malfunctioning, we do repairs accordingly.”
While there’s a security guard who mans the front door, management should station someone by those doors with faulty locks if they’re irreparable, McKenzie said.
“I just wish that one side would be locked because there’s not anyone sitting over there watching who’s coming in and out,” McKenzie said. “If it’s unfixable, put someone over there to watch it.”
However, even the lobby’s security guard is ineffective, Hough said. The guard is only there twice a week, often leaving his laptop abandoned on the desk or falling asleep in a chair, Hough said.
“I, myself know my building isn’t secure at all,” Hough said. “It’s sheer dumb luck our building doesn’t have more thefts; it’s no thanks to our management.”
Three girls enter the University View garage. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)
Though the View boasts one of the most complex security systems in the city — students are required to unlock an exterior door, show ID, unlock access to an elevator and then unlock their individual doors — residents said management could do more to make them feel safe.
For one, sophomore kinesiology major Matt Bower said the security guards are inconsistent in enforcing the rules.
“The guards are pretty strict, but it depends on the night,” Bower said. “Sometimes they’ll let large groups of people in, and you know none of these people live here.
“You’re going to risk your job and our safety, even though it’s a hassle to get everyone to get signed in? It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Another student who lives in the two-building complex noted the trend of nonresidents entering through a back door.
“People sneak in through the back door,” sophomore mathematics major Melissa Chammas said. “If you do that, you have to have someone inside let you in, so it wasn’t outsiders who wouldn’t know anyone.”
However, situations like these might not be the responsibility of the management, said Jordan Polk, the View’s leasing manager.
“We do as much as we can given the environment,” Polk said. “We take similar measures that the university does.”
College Park is safer than only 11 percent of U.S. cities, according to neighborhoodscout.com.
The same website reports the city experiences 247 crimes per square mile — more than six times the national average of 37.9.
“College Park has a lot of break-ins and crimes,” Chammas said. “Everyone knows that.”
University Police responded to 69 burglaries in 2014 alone.
“When we get to the scene off-campus, we just maintain the scene,” University Police spokeswoman Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas said. “We then turn it over when Prince George’s County Police gets there.”
Last month, the city saw 10 cases of breaking and entering, according to crimereports.com. In comparison, Ann Arbor, Michigan — home to the University of Michigan — recorded none.
University-owned high-rises layer locked exterior doors, locked elevators and locked dorm doors with a round-the-clock staff and student education on the dangers of letting people in.
“We take security very seriously,” Mike Glowacki, assistant to the director of the Department of Resident Life, said about on-campus housing. “Locked doors provide barriers, staff provide barriers, vigilant residents provide barriers, and all those add up to increase the overall safety of the community.”
However, few apartment buildings follow a similar protocol. Though the View operates under related conditions, Camden, College Park Towers and University Club are each missing various pieces of the puzzle.
“Places like the View — newer high-rises adjacent to campus — have more features similar to resident halls,” Glowacki said. “Places that are older and farther away from campus tend not to.”
And if student anecdotes are any indication, those variables can mean the difference between a safe apartment and an unsafe one.
“Apartment buildings need to be more proactive,” College Park District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir said. “They need to start doing their fair share to improve security.
“Something needs to change.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the subhead incorrectly stated that crime was increasing in College Park. This was not an accurate representation of the article. Due to an editing error a photo caption incorrectly stated that girls were sneaking into the University View. The girls are entering the View’s garage. The subhead and photo caption have been updated.