Next time you see a police cruiser parked at a 7-Eleven store in Harford County, don't assume that the officer is taking a work break. He could be in the back room writing up reports, answering phone calls or taking citizen complaints.
After years of demand for the sheriff's office to establish substations around the county, deputies now have a small office four of the chain's convenience stores for their use. Store owners donated the space for the offices, getting some added crime deterrence on site and perhaps increasing their walk-in trade with the new attraction.
If the setup works as planned, it will help to improve the countywide policing effort by reducing the reliance on Bel Air headquarters and keeping officers out in their assigned patrol sectors for prompt response. It's also expected to provide the usual benefits of community policing -- more personal contact between public and deputies.
Let's dispense with the wisecracks. ("Don't dial 911, dial 7-11 for faster response." "Aren't they usually on duty there anyway?") The need for community police substations in Harford has been apparent for some time. This arrangement eliminates the public cost of building stations.
The existence of municipal police offices in Aberdeen and Havre Grace has provided outreach to parts of the county beyond Bel Air, as have the two Maryland State Police offices, on Interstate 95 and in Benson.
But these agencies have their limits, both in terms of personnel and legal authority, and their own law enforcement priorities. They don't reach some important pockets of population in Harford County.
For more than a year, two sheriff's deputy substations have operated in Edgewood, located in an apartment complex and a shopping center. The experience has been positive, despite initial concerns that the private property owners were getting special police protection at taxpayer expense.
Deputies don't spend a full shift in the substation; they use it for paperwork and office duties. But their visibility has helped to reduce crime in the community, establishing a foot-patrol presence in the neighborhoods.
County-owned police substations will eventually be needed, given the persistent growth in Harford. But these offices in heavy-traffic 7-Eleven stores in Jarrettsville, Abingdon, Fallston and Edgewood easily extend the convenience of county law enforcement today.