DESPITE HIS no-nonsense, spit-and-polish appearance, county police Officer Joe Hatcher's approach to work makes him seem more like Mr. Rogers than your typical NYPD Blue cop.
The 44-year-old Navy veteran, who served as a corpsman at Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy and still keeps his hair short for the Naval Reserve, has been in police work half his life. His reputation for compassion and compatibility made him a natural for his job as police crime prevention liaison to the county Department of Aging. Four years ago, he was selected to head the new senior program.
"I am bound by duty to help if I see someone broken down on the side of the road," says Hatcher, who is the kind of officer you had in mind when you told your kids, "The policeman is your friend." Now, this cop is the "best friend" of the entire family, especially the older members.
"I always tried to project a positive force," says Hatcher, a former instructor at the county's police academy in Davidsonville. He would tell his students, "What I teach you here you'll take with you to the streets."
While Hatcher is not officially on the streets anymore, his days are filled with making house calls on senior citizens and routine visits to the county senior centers, and even conducting traffic on a busy flu-shot day at a senior facility.
When he's at his desk in the crime prevention unit at county police headquarters in Millersville, he takes calls regarding safety or security issues for seniors. He can be reached on his "senior hot line" - 410-222-8585 - from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week. He conducts what he calls "damage control" among seniors. "I can spend time with each individual," says the Pasadena resident, "whereas a road officer has to go from call to call."
During his frequent presentations at senior centers, Hatcher instructs his audience to "not open their doors to strangers, and if they're in the back yard, to lock their front doors," says Nancy Allred, manager of the Robert A. Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie.
"Before he began his regular visits," she says, "seniors would see a police car in the parking lot and wonder what was wrong. Now, there's no longer a sense of concern when he's in the building. He's very approachable."
Hatcher attended a gerontology criminology workshop a year ago in Louisville, Ky., where he told the instructors about the work being done in Anne Arundel County.
He talked about several of his pet projects, such as mediating disputes between older neighbors and surveying county seniors to identify their fears and use that information to improve police services.
He told them about the McGruff flashing light adapter, the small device that can be screwed into any lamp and with a double-click causes the bulb to flash. The flashing light on a porch or in a front window helps emergency crews locate the senior who has called for help.
"Watch your Car" is a federally sponsored program designed to prevent auto theft from seniors. When an officer spots a car with the identifying sticker - a small blue profile of a car with eyes for wheels - on the windshield between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the car can be pulled over. It's less likely that a senior will be driving at those hours and more likely that the driver is a thief. Hatcher says 40 to 50 seniors are signing up each month for the program.
County police also provide seniors with free, used cell phones, programmed to dial 911 only.
When he visits his most vulnerable constituents, Hatcher talks about crime prevention. He says that the biggest frauds against seniors today are home-related schemes. For example, more than one crook might enter a home on the pretense of checking a utility like water service. While one has the unsuspecting senior busy in the basement looking at the pipes, another will be upstairs looking for something to steal.
Hatcher also warns his audiences about mail fraud and identity theft. "Shoulder surfing" happens at an ATM when a crook tries to peer over the shoulder of someone using the machine. Dumpster diving - the practice of searching for a person's discarded mail in trash heaps - should inspire everyone to purchase a paper shredder, he says.
Supporting the county senior program is a national organization with a local chapter called TRIAD, a cooperative effort begun in 1988 by the county sheriff, police department and senior citizens. Another organization, TRIAD PLUS, includes those agencies as well as Annapolis police and fire departments, and other senior agencies.
Hatcher is involved with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, headed by Diane Turpin at the Department of Aging. A second group, Volunteers in Police Services, attracts dozens of individuals with time during the day to help with jobs at police headquarters. Volunteers work in almost every department, from answering the phone to assembling fingerprint kits.
"Volunteers save personnel power and money," says Hatcher, who's in the process of planning a volunteer appreciation banquet in December.
County seniors are invited to the fifth annual Seniors and Law Enforcement Together picnic from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Bright Water Pavilion in Downs Park.