C-OP lives on in Baltimore Co.
Police brass say they’re not abandoning the concept

Officials of the Baltimore County, Md., Police Department said recently that they are taking a “hard look” at community policing-based approaches to some crime problems, but denied that they are abandoning the philosophy, which the agency pioneered in the early 1980s.

“We’re not abandoning anything,” said police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Novak. “But some things, like the widespread armed-robbery problem we had earlier this year during the first quarter, are best handled through traditional enforcement  using informants, conducting aggressive patrol and enforcement strategies  and that’s what we did.”

Fears that the department would scale back its community policing program apparently stemmed from an interview by The Baltimore Sun with the county’s new police chief, Terrence B. Sheridan, who said the agency would make changes in the way it approaches some crime problems. Novak said Sheridan questioned the wisdom of some current practices, such as sending two officers to a police-community relations meeting held every other week in the jurisdiction’s Parkville precinct, “when only one of them really has much to do there.”

“We’ll send two when they’re needed,” Novak told Law Enforcement News, “but if we don’t think that’s necessary, the other guy will be out there patrolling or addressing other issues.”

Capt. James Johnson, patrol commander of the high-crime Essex precinct, said the department has “redefined our goals and objectives related to community policing…. What we’ve been asked to do by this administration is to take a hard look at our community policing involvement. If it does not reduce crime, if it does not prevent crime, then perhaps we should address whether or not we should be involved in it.”

Johnson said he must make decisions and formulate strategies that will address particular problems.

“Unfortunately, we’re very busy with narcotics,” he told LEN. “We exercise zero tolerance down here and I’ve got all of my resources devoted to enforcement at this point. That’s not to say I don’t go to the community, not to say I don’t listen to the community, their needs, desires and concerns. But  whether you want to call it community policing or hard-nosed enforcement, if it reduces crime, we’re going to keep doing it. So far, I haven’t been told by the Chief that I’m off target, so that’s our attitude.”

Both Novak and Johnson said some confusion still exists among officers about what sorts of activities and strategies constitute community policing. “You put 10 people in a room, you’ll get 20 different definitions,” Novak observed. “Each one is torn between at least two…. There are some areas where it’s really not completely applicable.”

The effectiveness of community policing “really depends on how you define community policing,” Johnson said. “That’s part of the problem. Academics and practitioners can’t agree, and there’s no agreement among police leaders in America today over what it really is…. Part of the problem for the line officer is that there’s this nebulous terminology…and this makes it very clouded and obscure.”

But former Police Chief Neil Behan, who led the Baltimore County department when it adopted the community-based policing philosophy in 1982, said community policing has had a concrete definition from the beginning.

“Community policing is a partnership with the community to improve the quality of life,” he asserted. “What the Captain does not understand is that community policing never rejected traditional policing. It is an enhancement of traditional policing  sometimes in a different direction  but it never abandoned traditional policing.”

“If crime is destroying the quality of life,” Behan continued, “then you energetically pursue the abolition of that crime. It’s that simple. You don’t abandon the community to do it.”

Behan added that he has conferred with Sheridan, who reassured him that community policing is still the agency’s guiding principle. “If I’ve got the numbers right, crime has been going up in Baltimore County and surveys have shown that the public is greatly concerned about it,” Behan said. “So it makes good sense to work with the public to reduce crime.”

Johnson said one indication of a shift in the agency’s direction is that he must respond to the queries of high-ranking police officials about what his precinct is doing to reduce crime.

“Under the past administration,” the Captain noted, “I was not asked on a regular basis about the status of a particular investigation…or why I could not get control of a robbery problem or pattern. That’s an everyday occurrence now. If I don’t know the answers, I’m in hot water.

“Before they called down and asked us how many community meetings we attended last month,” he continued. “They never asked why, they just wanted to know how many. They wanted to know how many times you went to the schools. They didn’t ask why you were there or what you did there, just how many times. I think we just became so involved in that issue that enforcement became just part of what we did, not the main focus. This new guy is bringing us back to that mission and goal at this point in time. Morale in my station has drastically improved.”  

Chief Sheridan wants the agency to be “enforcement-directed,” Johnson said, adding that that focus has resulted in some crime reductions in his precinct and higher morale among his officers.

“My crime rate is down 6.6 percent. My violent crime rate is down almost 12 percent for the first half of 1996, compared to the first half of 1995…. This is a result of the overall philosophy of this particular station and Sheridan’s position. The community likes it, they appreciate it and this is what they want. I think it’s the way to go in the future,” he said.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.