Smoke BBQ on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda was burglarized last month. Credit: Dan Schere

It was around 2:30 a.m. July 23 when someone threw a rock through the glass front door of Smoke BBQ on Cordell Avenue in downtown Bethesda, according to co-owner Susan Lennon. The culprit left shortly after that, but a half hour later another person smashed the rest of the glass and might have stolen some beer off the shelves.

Lennon is among many in Bethesda who are worried about the number of crimes, particularly robberies, burglaries and carjackings, that have been occurring recently.

After the vandalism, Smoke BBQ posted on Facebook that it was the 14th business in downtown Bethesda that had been targeted by criminals in the past three months. Lennon told Bethesda Beat last month that she worries that the late-night presence of Montgomery County police has dwindled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of bars and nighttime activity around us. So because of that there was a much stronger police presence going into late in the evening and that has completely disappeared,” she said.

A reporter who contacted county police Monday seeking statistics on businesses in Bethesda that have been targeted between May and July was told to file a Maryland Public Information Act request. The request had not been fulfilled as of Tuesday afternoon.

Crime has been on the rise in Montgomery County and throughout the greater Washington, D.C., region for the past couple of years. As of July 29, the county police department’s Second District, which covers Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington and parts of Potomac, had recorded in 2022:

  • 9 carjackings
  • 79 residential burglaries
  • 73 commercial burglaries
  • 15 armed robberies (includes individual and commercial)

A reporter requesting the same statistics from police for the period between Jan. 1 and July 29 last year for comparison purposes was told to file a Maryland Public Information Act request. The request had not been fulfilled as of Tuesday afternoon.

During a virtual forum hosted July 27 by County Council Member Andrew Friedson’s office, Second District Commander Sean Gagen said carjackings and burglaries have been particularly difficult problems in the district.

“It’s a regional issue. We’re dealing with a lot of different trends that we’re working with our partners all throughout the region,” he said.

“It’s been a little bit of a battle trying to make sure I’m trying to utilize my resources effectively. But we’re making progress. I don’t want people to get a sense that crime is out of control. We’re down in some areas like thefts from auto and auto thefts, but we have some other challenges we’re facing.”

Lennon said that one week before her business was burglarized, a nearby Dunkin Donuts also was broken into. And in June, four teens were charged in connection with an armed carjacking in a downtown parking garage, she noted.

“We’ve had a few instances of fights where police are called to local bars. And they’ll respond to the incident. But the general police presence in the area has just disappeared,” she said. “We’re not seeing an effective method of deterrence, and I think one of the reasons Bethesda had been so safe [in the past], especially at night, is because of the police presence.”

One step the county took recently was the council’s passage of legislation that establishes a security camera incentive program. The program will provide vouchers or rebates for the purchase of a security camera to people and businesses who might not be able to afford one. The county has not yet funded the program.

County police Chief Marcus Jones said during last month’s forum that he has spoken with D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III about his department’s similar camera incentive program and Contee has said it’s been “very fruitful.”

“It really does go to sort of the preventive mode,” Jones said. Helping people purchase cameras means those who experience a crime will then be able to provide footage that they wouldn’t have had previously, he said.

Gagen said surveillance video from multiple homes was instrumental in identifying three teenage boys who were eventually charged in connection with shooting at a police vehicle during a pursuit in Bethesda in late June. The teens, all from D.C., each have been charged with attempted murder.

The cameras “do work and they’ve helped us quite a bit,” Gagen said.

During the forum, Bethesda resident Phil Petrilli said his car was stolen from the front of his home on March 8. He said he asked for more patrol officers in his neighborhood and that after the theft of his car, he noticed increased patrols from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., but not during the hours of 2 and 4 a.m., which he is more concerned about.

Petrilli said the county is being “too soft” on crime and he has noticed that the number of vehicle break-ins is growing.

“Originally it was unlocked cars, [where thieves would] steal petty coins and things in the car. Then it escalated to breaking windows, and now it’s escalated to them stealing the car. And they have the technology to do it,” he said.

In response to Petrilli’s comments, Gagen said he is accountable when it comes to making decisions on where to put police resources, but he also noted that there are unmarked police vehicles the department deploys in the Bethesda district at night.

“If there’s a series of issues occurring in a particular location, that’s where I try to direct my resources,” he said. “So it is a challenge, as you pointed out. But at the same time … I would not say we’re in a position where we can’t address a particular trend or situation.”

Friedson noted concerns about problems with recruitment for the county police department, but also pointed out that the council increased the department’s funding in the fiscal 2023 county budget.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of money that’s budgeted per year. In fact, we approved more than $296 million for the police department this year, which was a 4.5% increase year over year,” he said. “It was the largest [increase] that we’ve had to date. But we have a recruiting class that is far less than the amount of budgeted positions that we have.”

Allie Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, told Bethesda Beat last month that he shares the concerns of Bethesda residents and business owners.

“People feel violated when things happen to them, and that’s always very disheartening,” he said. “I think there’s a good police presence, especially in downtown Bethesda, where police are on the ready to address concerns from businesses when needed.”

Williams pointed out that many of the crimes are occurring during late-night hours.

“It’s probably easier [for criminals] to do in the middle of the night than it would be when the streets are bustling with people and you can easily be seen committing a crime,” he said.

Jeff Burton, executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, told Bethesda Beat on July 29 that the organization is aware that public safety is the top priority of businesses and residents. Among its services, BUP maintains downtown Bethesda and promotes the area through events and marketing campaigns.

“[Police] also make it a priority to meet with local residents and business owners when there are safety concerns, and we are happy to join them in their community outreach efforts,” he said.

For Lennon, improving public safety in the business district is key to providing peace of mind for her employees.

“I think the real question is, crime has greatly increased in the last couple months, so how are we as businesses [supposed] to protect ourselves, protect our business, protect our employees walking to their cars at night … to get back to that safer environment that Bethesda was always known for?” she said.

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

Dan Schere

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