Closer police links needed

February 03, 2003

IF POLITICAL borders don't stop criminals, they should not impede law enforcement efforts, either. That's why it's important for Baltimore to quickly conclude an agreement that will allow the state police to conduct operations involving juvenile justice matters, traffic enforcement, fugitive apprehension and auto theft within city limits.

No one should be under the impression that state troopers will suddenly flood city neighborhoods once such a pact is signed. That's not going to happen. For one thing, state police simply do not have enough personnel for such expansive deployment. For another, troopers are not generally trained to deal with explosive urban confrontations. That's why the pending agreement would be limited to selected situations.

Even so, these moves toward closer cooperation are welcome. They show that the city Police Department's once-impregnable firewall of isolation is finally being dismantled.

The first cracks appeared a decade ago, when years of unnecessarily protracted negotiations produced a mutual aid agreement between the city and Baltimore County. That quickly led to the establishment of a joint task force that has combated car theft with remarkable success.

Relations with the state police proved more difficult to improve, after decades of intense rivalry. This was not helped by a much-publicized surprise raid troopers conducted on The Block, Baltimore's adult entertainment district, in 1994. They bungled it badly, lending credence to city police suspicions that the troopers were little more than glorified traffic cops.

This, of course, is a gross mischaracterization. State police have plenty of expertise and resources that can bolster crime-fighting efforts in the city and other jurisdictions -- but much initial coordination needs to be done first.

The most urgent task is to streamline the various police agencies' communications systems. As it is, state police cannot routinely talk to the city, the city cannot talk to the county and so on. Similarly, they each have different reporting systems and procedures.

Col. Edward T. Norris, the new state police superintendent, sees himself as Maryland's homeland security coordinator. But even if ample Washington funding materializes, those efforts are unlikely to succeed unless the various police agencies first forge closer links that facilitate quick emergency responses as well as more effective targeted crime-fighting.

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