Questioning need for surveillance cameras

Residents of Ridgely don't share police chief's view on necessity of anti-terror effort


RIDGELY -- In an era of seemingly limitless potential targets for terrorism, Police Chief Merlin M. Evans is determined that this is one small Eastern Shore town that won't be caught off-guard.

The unthinkable just doesn't seem all that far-fetched anymore, Evans says.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Ridgely is getting a closed-circuit camera surveillance system, bought with a $7,000 federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security - part of a flood of cash funneled to towns across the country through state and local emergency operations agencies since the 9/11 attacks.

"I've been using grants for a long time," Evans said. "One thing I can tell you is that if you don't ask, you aren't going to get a thing. We're a small town, and we need the help to be prepared for whatever comes along."

Despite a bit of skepticism from some residents, Evans plans to install three cameras outside Town Hall, two providing views in both directions along the Central Avenue business district, and the other focused on the police office's front door.

One camera will provide a clear view of the town's wastewater treatment plant; another will monitor a town park that Evans says has become a hot spot for drug deals.

Townspeople who live and work along Central Avenue, the broad boulevard where cars park diagonally and there are no meters, say the security cameras have been a hot topic in the one-block business district.

Mark Madachik, a pharmacist who moved 19 years ago from Ohio to a 25-acre farm outside town, dismisses talk about terrorists. "I'm all for homeland security, but in Ridgely, come on," he said. "They don't even have these cameras in Salisbury or Easton. I can understand the police wanting all the latest thing. Most people who come in here think it's nuts."

In 1867, its founders called Ridgely the "Dream City," but what emerged is a little town in the middle of miles and miles of flat Caroline County farmland.

Instead of the regional commercial hub planned by early investors, it has evolved as a trim mile-square community with streets lined with Victorian homes and a skyline dominated by grain silos and the municipal water tower.

It remains a country crossroads, population 1,400, surrounded this time of year by the brown stubble of harvested corn and soybean fields.

Lately, like other small towns on the Shore, Ridgely is attracting developers who think all that open land would be an ideal spot for new houses for commuters willing to make the 30-mile trip to the Bay Bridge, then on to jobs across the bay.

Evans is a veteran lawman with a knack for writing grants and a passion for equipping his five-member force (six if you count Marley the drug-sniffing dog) with the latest in law enforcement gear. With the town growing quickly, Evans figures such resourcefulness will always come in handy.

This week, Evans got approval for a grant to buy a $7,000 camera package for the nearby town of Preston, where he has been filling in as interim chief until the community of about 600 residents hires a new chief.

According to Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) spokesman Jeff Welsh, the agency handled about $161 million in homeland security grants between the 9/11 attacks and 2004.

Similar video equipment was purchased with homeland security grants awarded to small towns, as well as to many large county and municipal governments, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

"It has become common practice with these grants to use homeland security money for that kind of technology," Welsh said. "The decision to apply is usually made at the county emergency management level, whether it's for a municipal or county government."

In recent years, Evans has used money seized in drug raids to outfit his staff with everything from red dot laser sights for their 9 mm handguns to SWAT team body armor, an M-16 and a couple of semi-automatic rifles similar to those used by the military.

The chief says he scrimps only on patrol cars (which are equipped with laptop computers). Evans buys used police vehicles from a wholesaler for about half the price of new ones.

Evans rattles off Ridgely's crime statistics for the first eight months of the year: 66 criminal arrests, 52 juvenile arrests, six drunken-driving offenses and another six cases in which drivers were found with drugs. Town officers handed out 341 traffic tickets but eased up on some drivers, issuing 1,135 warnings. A homicide occurred here three years ago when a drunken brawl ended in a stabbing.

Evans says the cameras will be useful for run-of-the-mill police work, too.

Cindy S. Riddleberger, a Ridgely native who has run her insurance business on Central Avenue for 18 years, gives Evans credit for cracking down on drug use and other crime. But she is skeptical about surveillance cameras on a street where neighbors usually know who's in town because they recognize their cars.

"I never thought I'd see the day in Ridgely," said Riddleberger, 46. "The town has improved tremendously in the last five years or so. But even if you don't have anything to hide, you're still going to be on camera."

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