Police deployment goes back to school:
Md. county force unveils cluster of beats

Police officials in Montgomery County, Md., have unveiled a plan to redraw police district boundaries to provide a fairer distribution of police workloads and to contain and prevent crime, especially that involving youths, in the rapidly growing northwestern section of the state’s largest and wealthiest county.

Under the proposal, police district boundaries in the sprawling 300-square-mile Germantown District would be changed by arranging beats around school clusters  a group of schools that includes a high school as well as all of the middle and elementary schools that feed into it.

The department has already deployed two community teams responsible for the beats, and that will be expanded to six teams  one for each high school in a cluster  by spring, said Capt. Joseph Price, the Germantown District commander who designed the “school clusters” deployment plan.

The changes represent a “dramatic shift from what we’ve been doing in the past,” Price said, adding that the plan will be phased in over the coming months in the district. “We’re confident that by taking some of our reactive forces and making them more proactive, we’ll have a very positive effect not only on everyone’s workload but on public safety for the whole community.”

Price said the district, which was opened in 1981, is the county Police Department’s newest, largest and busiest.

“Since 1981, the population of this district has gone from 100,000 to about 258,000, with a projected increase by 2010 to about 335,000,” he told Law Enforcement News. “Obviously with that type of growth, our workload has geometrically skyrocketed. But more importantly, our customers  the community  is relatively young and one that is composed primarily of suburban families interested in the schools.

“Our deployment had always been based on traditional police methods like workload analysis,” Price continued, “and we’re not throwing that out, but we realized that in order to have a true community policing program, we needed to establish geographic ownership for our officers. In simple terms, telling the officers, ‘This street corner is yours, you own it, you’re responsible for it and you’ll be held accountable for it and you’ll be given the resources necessary to keep it safe.”

Price, a 20-year veteran who supervises 151 officers assigned to the district, all of whom eventually will be affected by the plan, said officers canvassed the community for ideas as it was being devised. “We went out and asked people what they viewed as the central focus of their communities. We got some shopping areas, some churches, some geographical landmarks, but the vast majority identified schools as the focal points of their communities.”

Police planners envisioned appointing a community team based on each high school cluster, Price said, including “a supervisory staff and a proportionate number of officers assigned to work the proactive issues within that community  all the way down to the point where within that team, they will be assigning the neighborhoods surrounding or contiguous to elementary schools to a particular officer.”

The school cluster deployment model will provide the Germantown District with several advantages, Price said.

“First, it gives us a true picture of who our customers are demographically,” he observed. “We felt that by knowing who are customers are, we can better determine what their wants and needs are from a public safety standpoint, and it will put us a step ahead. It also gives us the capability of pre-planning our personnel needs. In the past, we looked at last year’ workload, used a fairly complex mathematical formula and determined what manpower we needed. The problem with that is we’re always in arrears.”

By linking deployments to changes in the school district, such as the construction of new schools or variations in student demographics, Price said he will be able to have a community policing team “already hired, trained and ready to deploy in a continuous manner. So I’m actually current if not ahead of the workload power curve.”

Price said the change will lead to closer relationships between police, residents, local businesses, social-service providers and school officials, who are often the first to notice when a child is veering toward gang involvement, criminal activity, drug use or other problems. The local Parent-Teachers Association will act as an information clearinghouse for both police and residents, Price said.

 “What may be a problem in the school at 10 o’clock in the morning, ultimately may become our problem at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “So by working together and dealing with that problem, we’ll solve their problem and we’ll solve our problem.”

Some county school officials greeted the police deployment plan with unqualified optimism. “I think it makes outstanding organizational sense, particularly in the Germantown District, which is so huge,” said Ruth E. Koenigsberg, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown. “It allows a set group of police officers to work with sort of a contiguous community. They’re working with the same family and communities of all ages of children. If they’re working in the Seneca Valley cluster, they’re working with the high school, the two middle schools and their eight elementary schools.”

Concord, N.H., Police Chief David Walchak, who recently stepped down as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, praised the idea, telling The Washington Post that it could be replicated by other jurisdictions faced with rapid growth.

“What Chief Carol Mehrling is doing is redesigning the definition of community within a large geographic areas,” said Walchak. “What is interesting about this concept is that’s a tremendous move toward prevention. You have the opportunity of getting this community that already has a common interest, common needs and common goals and expanding that interest to public safety.”

The strategy was announced by the Police Department in October, shortly after it issued a report that said the agency had identified 18 gangs responsible for criminal activity like graffiti and assaults. Sources told The Post that the report identified over 140 gang-related incidents since last December, most of them relating to graffiti vandalism. It also identified 45 active “groups” with nearly 650 members ages 13 to 46. Of those 45 groups, 18 are said to be involved in a continuing pattern of crime and are considered by police to be gangs.

Police officials termed the situation modest and relatively manageable compared to gang problems present in other jurisdictions surrounding the District of Columbia. Thirty-one percent of the Montgomery County’s gang-related crimes occurred in Germantown District.

“We have do not have an out-of-control gang problem,” said Price. “The gang activity in this district accounts for one-tenth of 1 percent of our total workload. But we would be foolish to put our heads in the sand and say there is not at least the potential for gang activity to develop.”

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