Hampstead police seek more space, personnel Residential growth putting strain on the department

December 27, 1996|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Residential growth has caught up with Hampstead Police Department, and Chief Ken Meekins wants more space and personnel to provide adequate police protection for residents.

Getting an early start on budget requests for fiscal 1998, Meekins has informed the mayor and Town Council that his department needs a larger office and a dispatcher to answer police calls -- a job now handled by town office staff.

"I wanted to get them thinking about the priorities for the new budget," Meekins said. "We're looking to evolving this to a full-time department, and to do that we need to take steps to improve the facilities and hire more clerical help and additional officers."

Meekins, who became Hampstead's police chief in May, said the five-member department has seen a marked increase in the number of calls for service. In 1995, it received 1,800 calls; 2,400 calls are projected for 1996, a 33 percent increase.

He said the greater demand for police services is partly a result of having more officers to respond and doesn't necessarily indicate an increase in crime. The town hired an additional police officer in September and filled another position in October that had been vacant for most of the year.

Town officials said the new chief also has made an effort to get out in the Hampstead community and be more accessible to residents and business people.

"Ken spends a lot of time out on the street and with community groups in the evening," said Neil Ridgely, Hampstead town manager.

Meekins estimated the cost of hiring a dispatcher/clerk and a sixth officer to be between $70,000 and $80,000, including salaries and benefits. He declined to estimate the cost of moving to a larger office, saying the price is dependent on the location of available space in town. Hampstead's public safety budget for fiscal 1997 is $288,000.

Mayor Christopher M. Nevin said he's not surprised at the increase in calls for police service and said he is prepared to support Meekins' efforts to improve the Police Department.

"We're committed to making sure that the services are there for the people," Nevin said.

The rapid growth that Hampstead has experienced over the past decade creates a strain on all types of public services, including law enforcement.

Meekins noted that most newcomers to the town of 4,000 are from larger suburban and urban areas -- Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City -- and expect prompt, effective police service.

"These people are used to picking up the phone and always having an officer being there [at their home] in 10 to 15 minutes," Meekins said. "Unfortunately, there are times when they pick up the phone here and sometimes they get an answering machine."

The town office staff handles calls for police service from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but it isn't an ideal arrangement, town officials said.

Dispatching police calls diverts staff members from their work, and they're not trained in police procedure.

"It's really a burden," Ridgely said. "Here you are trying to do the payroll and you get a call that someone wants a [police] car right away because there's an argument between a father and a son."

Ridgely said that a trained police dispatcher probably could handle many calls over the phone without having to send an officer to the scene.

"We're looking for someone acquainted with police procedure who can take the burden off of the office staff," Meekins said.

The other pressing issue facing the Police Department is office space.

The department is housed in a building attached to Town Hall on South Carroll Street, with four officers in a 12-by-12 room.

"We're bursting at the seams here," Meekins said.

He said a bigger space would give the department a more visible presence in town and plans to hire more officers to expand police coverage will require larger quarters.

Hampstead Police Department provides coverage 20 hours a day, but Meekins eventually wants to have officers on duty 24 hours a day.

"To do that we need to expand to eight officers to allow time for court appearances, vacations and in-service training," Meekins said.

Another area of concern for the Hampstead police chief is the ratio of officers to residents. The town's adequate-facilities law calls for one officer for every 1,000 residents, but the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends 2.5 officers for every 1,000 residents.

"I think if we look at two officers per 1,000 that might be a more realistic number," Meekins said. "One officer per 1,000 seems awfully low to me."

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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