Making quick work of crime Rapid-response teams target neighborhood 'hot spots' in Balto. Co.

February 17, 1997|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

After weeks of intensive training, an elite group of 49 officers fans out across Baltimore County today in a program aimed at quickly attacking neighborhood crime problems as they arise.

Using new, computer-generated crime statistics to identify which neighborhoods are criminal "hot spots," the officers will attack such localized problems as the wave of robberies and juvenile crime in Hillendale and chronic prostitution along Pulaski Highway.

And the seven squads -- initially working in such areas as Hillendale, Liberty Road, Reisterstown Road, Essex, Dundalk and Pulaski Highway -- also will focus on "quality of life" crimes, such as public drunkenness, loitering and disorderly conduct.

The idea is to establish an immediate, visible police presence in areas where particular crimes are occurring.

"If law enforcement says we are not going to tolerate this type of thing, and if we get the community support, we can make a difference," said Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, who created the Community Action Teams, or CAT squads.

Such programs, using officers trained in grass-roots level enforcement, are growing in popularity, law enforcement experts say.

Last fall, state police began the Operation People program, in which troopers assist local police departments in Prince George's County. The program has been considered such a success that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is asking the state legislature for money to expand the teams of troopers statewide.

In New York City, a team approach to crime fighting is part of the community policing initiatives credited by city authorities with reducing crime and changing the conventional wisdom that police have no impact on crime rates.

"If you had to characterize how police strategy is changing, I would say it's changing from community policing to smarter community policing," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Foundation. "Police are looking at not just the individuals committing crimes but also where the crimes are happening."

Such grass-roots level enforcement fights crime under the "broken-window" theory, said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

That holds that major crimes can be prevented by tackling smaller crimes and creating an atmosphere in which crime is not tolerated.

"The most important thing you can do is to analyze the crime stats quickly and send those officers where the problems are," Ruppersberger said. "In the past, we had not been analyzing crime quickly enough. Now we are going to be getting it week-by-week or day-to-day."

$4 million program

The county's program was made possible through a $3 million federal grant, matched by $1 million in county funds, all of which allowed the county to hire 42 more patrol officers to free resources for the new squads.

The 49 Baltimore County officers who make up the squads are hand-picked veteran patrol officers. They had two weeks of intensive training that ended Friday at the Baltimore County Police Training Academy in Dundalk. Training ranged from constitutional law and investigative techniques to cultural diversity.

They underwent training in investigative techniques from such veterans as Lt. Sam Bowerman, a criminal profiler who heads the Unsolved Homicide Squad.

One morning, the officers paid close attention to Bowerman as he explained how to do the most important part of investigating a suspect: background information gleaned from a suspect's family, friends and associates.

"Identify the person you think is furthest away from the suspect," Bowerman told the class. "You just might find out something interesting about the person. A person who the suspect is not concerned about maintaining an image with might know a lot about that person."

And he warned the patrol officers that "investigations, even in a minor-level crime, can be a long, complicated process. You get out of it what you put into it."

Going where crime is

Sheridan, who took over the Police Department in April, sees the new squads as part of a multifaceted push to quickly react to neighborhood crime.

The squads are not permanently assigned to the initial six communities and could be sent to other neighborhoods as problems arise. Besides the teams of officers, Sheridan also believes in holding top-level police commanders responsible for levels of crime in their precincts.

He holds weekly meetings with commanders to find out what his top officers are doing to prevent crime in their communities.

"They have to take a look at the crime and take control of it," he said.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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