Law enforcement focus is used against Gary Owens assails executive for lack of attention to education in Arundel

October 31, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Over the last four years, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary has been gearing up his police department as if for war.

He acquired two surplus Vietnam-era U.S. Army OH-58 helicopters with infrared scopes. He bought all 659 police officers Sig Sauer 40-caliber semi-automatic handguns. He hired more officers, bought 50 mobile computers and a DNA crime lab.

And as police chief, he chose former state police superintendent Larry Tolliver, who boasts of his "zero tolerance" crackdown and keeps a 6-foot cutout of John Wayne by his desk.

But at the same time Gary was beefing up the police department's budget by 21 percent, critics said, he was also declaring war on the county's Board of Education, repeatedly scolding its members for wasting money. During his term, Gary raised education spending by 12 percent -- slightly more than half the proportion of the police.

Now his opponent in Tuesday's election, Democrat Janet Owens, is questioning whether Gary's enthusiasm for law enforcement took away from his focus on helping education, which voters in a recent Anne Arundel Community College poll identified as the most important issue.

"When Gary came into office, he said that public safety was the top priority of the voters," said David Sheehan, Owens' campaign manager. "That may have been an accurate measure of the voters' opinions at one point in time. But you can't rely on one measurement for a four-year term. Voters are also very concerned about education, and they want the county executive to improve the schools, not just blast away at them as Gary as done."

Public opinion about the importance of law enforcement has declined during Gary's term, and his supporters say that's because they feel safer.

A poll Anne Arundel Community College conducted in the fall of 1995 found that crime was far and away the most important problem facing the county's residents (26 percent indicated crime, 18 percent growth and 14 percent education).

A survey released by the college last week showed that education and crime had flipped places as the most important issue (with 29 percent of the respondents choosing education, 26 percent growth and 19 percent crime).

During the first three years of Gary's term, the number of major crimes reported to county police rose at about the same rate, 5 percent, as the estimated population growth, according to 1994-1997 data collected by county police for the U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reports.

Through the first eight months of this year, however, the number of reported crimes dropped by 6 percent compared with the same period last year, according to uniform crime report data. The county is on a pace to have the fewest reported crimes

since 1990, said county police spokesman Lt. Jeff Kelly.

"When I came in, 12 years had passed without any real attention being paid to the police department," Gary said. "Now I finally think we've finally got the police department up to where it can handle a county of this size."

Gary defends his record, saying he has increased school construction spending by 30 percent, doubled the textbook budget and paid for the hiring of 289 new teachers.

But he said that circumstances forced him to pour big money into public safety. Because the county's 300-bed jail west of Annapolis was crowded to almost double capacity, he spent $32 million building a jail in Glen Burnie.

Because the county's circuit court in Annapolis was antiquated and overcrowded, the county had to pay more than $50 million on a courthouse.

"If I had another chance," Gary said, "I would have spread these two projects out over two terms, so that the funding for education could have been more steady. But I couldn't do that."

To staff the new buildings, the county sheriff's department grew from 39 to 93 employees, requiring a budget increase of 84 percent. The county's department of corrections grew from 223 employees to 404, raising its budget by 68 percent.

But the police department's growth was unrelated to construction. Gary said he poured more money into law enforcement because he thought that voters were demanding that he do more to fight crime.

In February 1997, Gary appointed Tolliver as his chief. Tolliver instituted a "zero tolerance" policy toward drug enforcement, directing officers to arrest even small-time drug users and buyers.

"The whole focus of the department has changed," Tolliver said. "We're not just focusing on the drug kingpins, but everyone down to the street level -- even the guy with the half-joint in his car."

Over the last two years, the 659-officer department has enlarged its undercover narcotics squad from 30 to 47 officers. Drug arrests have skyrocketed 57 percent in the first nine months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Not all the changes in the police department have centered around drugs, however. It has also hired its first four domestic violence officers, trained its first computer-crimes investigator and its first crime-prevention officer for senior citizens.

Curiously, however, the county's branch of the Fraternal Order of Police has chosen not to endorse a county executive candidate for the first time in a decade. Four years ago, the organization backed Gary's opponent, Theodore Sophocleus.

"We have endorsed candidates who didn't win in the past, and the feeling this year was that maybe we'd better just stay out of the race altogether," said Officer William Wild, president of F.O.P. Lodge 70.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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