Westminster's Need for Basic Policing CARROLL COUNTY

August 06, 1993

While Westminster Police Chief Samuel Leppo claims he wasn't criticizing the residents of the Bishop's Garth Apartments for failing to report suspicious activity the day Cathryn B. Farrar and George W. Wahl were murdered last week, he certainly was unhappy no one called the police. Instead of finding fault with the public, the chief ought to spend some time pondering why the city's residents may have seemed reluctant to call his department.

Although Westminster is a small town -- the murders of Ms. Farrar and Mr. Wahl were its second and third this year -- its police force functions as if it were policing a major metropolis. Most city residents don't have a relationship with the two dozen officers who patrol the streets. They are faceless men and women in gray uniforms who zip by in their cruisers.

This creates two problems: The police don't know the people of the community very well. As a result, the community doesn't relate to the police officers as human beings. Mutual antagonism develops. In the eyes of the police, citizens abuse the 911 system to report only inconsequential crime, and citizens see police only as armed authority figures rousting teen-agers in parking lots. Under these conditions, it may be unrealistic to expect a citizen to flag down an officer and casually report something out of the ordinary.

To counteract this destructive dynamic, a number of police departments have instituted community policing -- nothing more than old-time police work. Before the police retreated to their automotive cocoons, patrolmen walked neighborhoods and knew the residents. They had a rapport with the upstanding citizens as well as the ones likely to cause trouble. Police were respected and often could settle disputes before they escalated into major confrontations. If officers needed information, they could tap reliable sources they had developed in the community.

Chief Leppo has made an effort to have his men walk the beat along Main Street and interact with the merchants, but this year-old initiative should be expanded to all parts of the the city. Community policing probably has been oversold as a solution to today's crime problems, but getting Westminster's police into the neighborhoods will make residents more secure and comfortable about reporting questionable activity.

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