Police chief has town stirred up

Easton official asks for fence as shield from terrorism

February 18, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Say one thing for Police Chief George M. Harvey: In the small-town confines of the Talbot County seat, he's pretty hard to miss.

It's not just his linebacker size that stands out as he strolls frequently around the trendy shops, the brokerages and law firms of the downtown business district. In the two years since he became the top cop in the Eastern Shore's Colonial-era capital, the imposing ex-Marine, a 22-year veteran of the Baltimore County force, has done things his own way -- regardless of who gets rattled.

And a lot of folks got rattled when he started talking about surrounding Easton's police headquarters with an 8-foot fence to protect against terrorism.

Typical of the reaction: "Hey, let's be clear, there is no terrorist threat in Easton," says James E. Kerr, a retired administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Administration. "It's just so laughable, it makes you cry. He's using a sledgehammer to drive in a tack."

Harvey, 53, has got credit for shaking up what some say was a lethargic 42-man Police Department. Merchants -- unnerved by a front desk holdup at the venerable Tidewater Inn and downtown break-ins before his arrival -- say Harvey has made big improvements.

But in a town so small that the bad guys usually recognize the police and vice versa, a town where the distance between upscale boutiques and street-corner drug-dealing is a couple of blocks, the chief has become a lightning rod.

Some neighborhood activists don't like his disdain for a ballyhooed state HotSpot program that came with a pile of crime prevention money. Others got upset in the summer of 1998 when police started rounding up teen-agers for "rolling the bowl," the time-honored local tradition of loitering and cruising the parking lot outside the local bowling alley.

Last but certainly not least was the fence.

Harvey told the Town Council that it would help defend against terrorists. He also mentioned worries about prisoner escapes and vandalism. He says the terrorist remark was a poor choice of words that has been blown out of proportion.

A blizzard of letters reached the local op-ed pages. One political cartoon portrayed a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil Town Council as a Harvey caricature requested a missile defense system.

The council, which approved the plan last month with little or no comment, has reversed itself. The issue will be discussed along other planned renovations to the police station.

"I find no fault with the request. I don't think the intent was to compound the Police Department from the community," says Town Councilman John Ford. "But it doesn't portray the image the town wants to portray."

Harvey is unfazed by the ridicule of the fence proposal or the criticism of his policing.

The primary reason for the fence, he says, was to provide tighter security in the back of the police station, where in recent months several prisoners have run away as they were being transferred from police vehicles. The area also includes a public parking lot.

Recently, the department moved cars used by undercover officers away from there because drug dealers were seen recording license numbers, Harvey says.

But he did mention terrorism. Harvey says he didn't expect a furor, but he's not backing down.

"Do we not have militant paramilitary groups in the United States? Do we not have the Klan? Do we not have violent anti-abortionists?" Harvey asks. "Four weeks ago we locked up a guy with explosives and notes on bomb building from the `Anarchist's Cookbook' off the Internet. We just arrested a drug guy with an assault rifle complete with a laser sight. Nobody's hunting Bambi with that thing."

Harvey says the town's proximity to metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, compounded by its popularity as a tourist destination, presents it with more problems than most towns of 11,000 might face.

Eighteen months ago, Easton provided eight officers for the security detail protecting the Aspen Institute Wye River Conference Center during Middle East peace talks. When the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to go shopping, she went to Easton.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "was just in St. Michaels, and we were part of that," Harvey said. "These kinds of folks come here because of the town we have."

The fence issue aside, Harvey has angered neighborhood activists in the town's East End and West Side neighborhoods by his refusal to accept $11,000 in state HotSpot money designed to provide overtime to pay officers to staff two neighborhood substations.

The chief says the grant would end up costing the department an additional $15,000 for administration, and besides, he'd rather have his officers out and about in patrol cars than manning a desk, even in a troubled neighborhood.

Harvey says he opposes using the term "HotSpot" because it's demeaning to a neighborhood.

Carolyn Jaffe, an East End activist who helped secure the state funding, says, "This is counter to everything we're trying to do as a community. The substations were never intended to be manned full-time. The idea is to have officers there periodically, just to be seen and to interact with people."

Harvey shrugs off criticism, saying it's part of his job. He thinks community groups will eventually applaud the changes he's begun.

"From what I see, the Police Department is as healthy as it's been in a long time," says Ford. "The chief told us coming in that he'd do some things differently and not everyone would like it. It's played out that way. I'd say we're still in an adjustment period."

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