Dangers facing elderly get more police attention Agencies increasingly visit, offer warnings to growing population

June 21, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Joe Hatcher and Al Hopkins are playing at a picnic table in Sandy Point State Park surrounded by an admiring crowd of onlookers.

"Oh no, wait," Hopkins says, blocking Hatcher. "You've got to separate these." He fiddles with the clump of jacks, but that doesn't stop Hatcher from tossing the ball and plucking 10 jacks triumphantly from the tabletop.

Margaret Koenig of Cape St. Claire needles Hatcher: "No wonder we can't find the police. They're out playing jacks."

Or helping with the senior citizens quilt raffle.

Or visiting elderly shut-ins.

Hatcher, 41, is Anne Arundel County's "seniors' cop," the sole police officer assigned to hang out with the geriatric set.

He is part of a small but growing cadre of officialdom nationwide on the elderly beat. These days, his partner is Hopkins, 72, a part-time ombudsman with the county Office of Aging, but better known as the former mayor of Annapolis.

In the 1980s, community policing meant teaching basketball to the Sesame Street crowd. But increasingly, the attention of law enforcement officials is turning to Memory Lane.

Crimes against the elderly have jumped 150 percent over 1986 levels across the country. The National Center on Elder Abuse in Washington estimated last year that 2.1 million people 60 and older were exploited, abused or neglected.

Officials say they expect even more financial and physical crimes against the elderly. By 2030, one-fourth of all Americans will be over 60. In Maryland, the proportion of elderly people is expected to reach 23 percent of the population by 2020; it's 5 percent now.

Those numbers don't include thousands of younger disabled adults who are just as vulnerable.

In Baltimore County, where 135,000 residents 60 and older make it second only to Dade County, Fla., in the percentage of elderly, every police precinct's outreach program has at least one officer who takes a special interest in the elderly.

And in Anne Arundel County, where the estimated 62,595 people over 59 make up 13.3 percent of the population, the number of older residents is predicted to exceed 90,000 by 2010.

'A major challenge'

"This is going to be a major challenge to law enforcement," says Anne Arundel's Lt. Tim Walker.

That's why, in a Sandy Point pavilion Friday, "Officer Joe" schmoozed with senior citizens. One moment he's talking about his son, the next about gardening. Where the white-haired Hopkins is their contemporary, the graying but sandy-haired officer is son-age. Or grandson-age.

"I've got my tomato plants in there, and I always plant my zinnias. It was my grandmother's favorite flower," he tells Mary Hepburn of Pasadena.

"I should have you down to my house, the way you love to garden. I have the early tomatoes," she says.

"I get the Beefeater and the cherry tomatoes," he tells her.

Most of the 150 or so at the picnic recognize Hatcher, even though he's been on the job barely a month. He's at every senior center once a week, visits the nutrition sites, stops to see a few shut-ins, usually with Hopkins. The two mix the silly with the serious.

Hatcher shows the elderly version of horror flicks at senior citizens centers -- victim accounts of financial fraud -- and has learned that his audience won't think much of him if he doesn't know better than to interrupt a bridge game. He has cartons of crime prevention literature.

The other week, as Hopkins sang "I Don't Know Why I Love You" at the Arnold Senior Center, Elsie Crofoot asked the former mayor to dance, too. "Joe does the dancing. I do the singing," Hopkins quipped. And "Officer Joe" danced briefly with Crofoot.

But Hopkins also matched a woman with a lawyer to update her will, and Hatcher explained the ramifications of driving without a license to the family of a man who won't give up his car.

While seniors worry more about becoming victims of street crime, they are more likely to be targets of financial crimes, officials say.

As a group, senior citizens are wealthier today.

'Unanticipated breaks'

"The two big unanticipated breaks have been the large increase in Social Security benefits and secondly, this dramatic run-up in the real estate market," said Joseph Quinn, professor of economics at Boston College and an expert in retirement finances.

Social Security benefits are one of the few annuities indexed to inflation. Many retirees also have pensions, savings and the like.

But some are too trusting, weak or embarrassed -- which sometimes costs them their financial security, said Baltimore County Detective John Reginaldi.

"No question -- we know better than 50 percent of deceptions are targeting the seniors," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "Seniors are a lucrative target."

His office's Senior Sting netted 10,000 pieces of questionable mail to follow up on. Oct. 1, the law will allow wiretaping of phone conversations where telemarketing fraud is suspected.

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