Dutch police teach city officers Rotterdam's finest say knowing everyone on the beat gets results

March 10, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands -- The No. 4 tram reveals many faces of this sprawling port city near the North Sea as it passes the downtown office towers, rumbles west past brothels and heads into Marconiplein, infamous among police as the most dangerous area.

While most foreign visitors wouldn't venture into Marconiplein, Baltimore Police Sgt. Wesley Ormrod can be found here, touring the rowhouse-lined streets with his Dutch counterparts and trying to learn ideas to cure the ills in his home city.

The 28-year veteran is impressed with the way Rotterdam officers know their community and keep in touch with residents -- but a little surprised when they leave a heroin dealer alone because he isn't a nuisance to his neighbors.

Sergeant Ormrod and Officer David Childs arrived here two weeks ago as part of an officer-exchange program arranged by Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and the Rotterdam police chief. The two officers are halfway through a visit intended to explore innovations that could work in Maryland. Chosen by Mr. Frazier from among dozens of potential candidates, both men expressed an openness to new ideas.

Officer Childs, 35, has been on the force for 12 years and is in the specialized tactical unit. Sergeant Ormrod, 50, who has been to Europe before, has patrolled city streets for nearly three decades.

Rotterdam, a blue-collar city roughly the size of Baltimore, boasts of being the world's busiest port. It still is rebuilding from being flattened by bombs during World War II. Dozens of high-rises make for an impressive sky- line, but much of downtown is overwhelmed by construction crews who are rebuilding squares, digging an underground shopping mall and finishing the Waterstaad, similar to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The city even has an Imax theater.

Downtown streets teem with people during the day and evening, particularly along the waterfront and the Lijnbaan, a pedestrian-only shopping street. Trams, a smaller version of Baltimore's light rail cars, crisscross the city, sharing the streets with automobiles.

Rotterdam can't be compared with Amsterdam, a city that pushes even Dutch tolerance of sex and drugs to the edge. One local saying is that Rotterdam works while Amsterdam plays.

Yet even though illicit endeavors are more discreet here, there is a compact river front prostitution zone -- always monitored by police -- and brothels that brazenly advertise in neon in a seedy area west of downtown.

Commissioner Frazier selected Rotterdam for the exchange program because of similarities with Baltimore and common law enforcement goals, such as community policing.

But the problems in the Netherlands are a lot different from those in the United States. While Americans may look down their noses at the relaxed drug laws and legal prostitution in Holland, people here think of Americans as a gun-toting people out of a John Wayne movie.

"We have illegal weapons here, no doubt about it," said Rotterdam Officer Frank Damme. "But we have never had a tradition where everyone has a gun and shoots everyone else."

Some Rotterdam officers can't imagine the violence in Baltimore. The Dutch city averages 30 homicides a year -- one-tenth the number for Baltimore. One street here is well known to police commanders because it had eight robberies last year. "For Broadway, that would be a blessing," Sergeant Ormrod said.

On one of his evenings with Rotterdam police, the sergeant ran into typical crimes -- a stabbing and an ambulance crash. They occurred in Marconiplein, which is known as "The Hill," after the old television series "Hill Street Blues," which also aired in the Netherlands.

One neighborhood in Marconiplein, Spangen, does resemble inner-city Baltimore. It is a community of 10,000 people, half unemployed, who represent a growing minority underclass of immigrants living in rowhouses west of the city's glittering new office towers and inner harbor.

Rotterdam officers who patrol this area make crime prevention a priority and take great pride in knowing everyone on their beat, even people Baltimore officers would consider the bad guys.

"It is very important to know the drug dealers and the users," said Sgt. Jan Olonamasen, who took Sergeant Ormrod on a walking tour of Spangen last week. "Then you get the best results."

Nowhere was that more evident than at the home of Roy Mahabier, a Surinam immigrant who sells heroin to a small group of friends from his government-subsidized house.

Sergeant Olonamasen visits him often, not to make an arrest but to make sure his small enterprise isn't creating any problems for the neighbors. It is one of 30 such houses under close watch in the area.

"We know people use drugs here, and if it gets too much, we stop it," Sergeant Olonamasen said.

For Sergeant Ormrod, who is used to arresting people like Mr. Mahabier, the tactic is an "interesting point of view, but not one I would recommend to our police commissioner."

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