Small-town police beat Chief: In a small town without much big crime, Melvin E. Diggs is on the move, talking to young and old, and listening to the heartbeat of the community.

July 01, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

The police chief of Taneytown, where the last heinous crime was a 1996 robbery and attempted murder with a brick, has no trouble catching red-light runners.

There are only two traffic lights in town.

Jammed parking meter in front of City Hall? Chief Melvin E. Diggs -- who spent 25 years as a patrolman, detective and administrator in Baltimore -- is ready to empty it or replace it himself.

With serious crime so low, Diggs and his seven officers can enforce laws that his big-city counterparts often must ignore, such as underage smoking (15 arrests in May) and seat-belt violations (124 tickets in May).

In Taneytown, population 5,000, the main thoroughfare of Baltimore Street boasts a RadioShack and Spanky's, a new '50s-motif restaurant -- signs of growth for a town that was incorporated in 1754.

But the old Country Kitchen is still there, and a lunch of hot beef, fries and gravy is a steal -- $3.95 for a feast.

And the crime rate is still low for a metropolitan-area county: four rapes, one robbery and 20 burglaries in 1997.

"We have had some residents commit murder, but they went outside the city limits to do it," Diggs says. "We do have some serious crimes, just not as often. But we still have to be prepared for them. Our officers have to be trained to handle them, just like in any big agency."

For the 63-year-old chief, the challenge of Taneytown is much more than making arrests and locking up criminals. It's a chance to practice his considerable people skills as he interacts with city residents -- from the mayor to the town drunk.

"He's definitely not a chief that sits in his office all day long," says Shane Fitzgerald, owner of Spanky's.

Instead, he is out in the summer heat, cruising along Baltimore Street, crisscrossing north and south to check on merchants, residential communities and idle juveniles.

He sees an 8-year-old pedaling furiously toward home and drives alongside.

"Where's your helmet, son?" Diggs asks sternly.

"Uh, er, I left it home. I, er, uh, am going to get it," the boy stammers.

"Well, be sure you wear it," Diggs says firmly.

"Yes, sir!"

The chief grins as the boy speeds away.

"I just reordered five more helmets," he said. "If kids don't have one and it looks like the parents can't afford it, we give them one free."

Later, Diggs parks his cruiser at the Taneytown Shopping Center on the east end of the city and checks on the merchants.

At Hair Talk, Wendy Marshall is giving a young customer a cool summer "flattop."

"You feel a lot safer knowing the police officers -- knowing that they are checking on you," she says. "Just walking to the car after dark can be scary, but police know when we leave and often drive by to see we are safe."

Life is different in a small town.

Diggs hasn't fired his service weapon in the line of duty since taking over as chief of police in November 1988.

"None of my officers have either, and that's the way I like it," he says. "But don't compare my job to chiefs in larger cities and counties. You can't compare the crimes of 5,000 in Taneytown to what happens in Baltimore City."

Diggs doesn't miss the horrific sights he saw routinely in the city. The worst, he says, was when he entered a house and found a dead infant in a crib, the victim of multiple stab wounds.

He hasn't had to investigate one murder in his 10-year tenure as chief, while police in Baltimore have seen more than 3,000 homicides.

On one recent day in Taneytown, Diggs had only one criminal complaint during his shift: a clay pot with $12.99 worth of flowers missing from a front porch.

Diggs encourages his officers to follow his example and get out into the community. Cpl. Bill Tyler manages the Taneytown Cadets, a Little League baseball team sponsored by the police department. Diggs has two plaques recognizing Tyler as Manager of the Year on the paneled wall at police headquarters. The team just clinched its third straight championship.

Sgt. Ed Engle takes his police dog, Dany, to schools and carnivals and gives away souvenir baseball cards bearing Dany's photograph.

Keeping good officers on the payroll is a prime concern for Diggs. An expected 9 percent raise next year will bring the starting salary of a certified officer to $23,500 and provides the best clue why some want to move on to better-paying jobs in law enforce- ment. A rookie officer in Baltimore earns $27,312.

Salary disparities mushroom with rank, longevity and agency size. Thomas C. Frazier, the chief of police in Baltimore, earns $115,000 annually. Diggs takes home $35,000.

Diggs plans to retire in 2000 and is grooming Lt. Gregory Woelfel as his successor.

What has the lieutenant learned from the chief?

"The chief's strongest asset is his people skills," Woelfel says. "He solves a lot of problems without those involved having to resort to a legal remedy.

"He's a good listener, no matter who it is, from the poorest of individuals to the top officials in town."

A great part of being prepared, Diggs says, is knowing people -- young and old, good and bad -- in the community.

Judging from the number of friendly waves he exchanges with children at a playground, elderly ladies on a leisurely noontime walk, a bank teller working the drive-through window and mothers pushing strollers toward a grocery store, Diggs appears to know almost everyone in Taneytown.

He laughs at that suggestion, reflects for a moment from behind his aviator sunglasses, and rubs a strong hand through his naturally wavy steel-gray hair.

"About half of them -- by sight, maybe -- but I don't remember all their names," he says, serious and almost apologetic.

But it's an even bet that most everyone in Taneytown knows Diggs.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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