Craig homes in on public safety

Executive tours neighborhoods, precincts

Maryland Votes 2006

October 22, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

As Capt. Doug Verzi drove through the winding roads of Edgewood's more notorious cul-de-sacs, County Executive David R. Craig looked out the window.

"They were building this in the early '70s," Craig said after Verzi pointed out one of the more troublesome developments. "It looked like it'd be a nice place to live."

Instead, the single-family homes are largely dormant. Trash is strewn across some of the front lawns, and young men pass through backyards, glaring at the unmarked police car as it passes by.

But as Verzi moved on to an adjacent neighborhood, he found himself more often noting progress.

"There's few problems here," he said, passing Woodbridge Commons. "The grass is mowed, the decks are stained - everything's kept nice."

In an election season when many politicians have dwelled on crime - gangs in particular - as a campaign theme, Craig's daylong tour of public safety facilities and conversations with sheriff's deputies and state troopers offered a different take. Their biggest concerns centered on staffing and recruitment.

"The reality is, the [most serious] crime stats have declined significantly over the past few years," said Robert B. Thomas Jr., a spokesman for the Harford County sheriff's office. "That doesn't mean there are not areas that we can improve upon with respect to criminal activity, but perception is not always reality."

The candidates for sheriff say staffing will be one of the toughest challenges over the next four years. A $25 million expansion at the Harford County Detention Center is set to be completed by 2009, offering more beds for the jail's growing inmate population. The expansion will require 66 new officers, a significant challenge given the agency's recent recruiting troubles.

"I don't know what we're going to have to do to entice and maintain staff to work at this jail," the acting warden, Maj. Elwood Dehaven, told Craig. "Our [pay] package here is very attractive, but you can travel further and get a better retirement or a couple extra thousand dollars."

Similar concerns were expressed during Craig's visits to the precincts in Jarrettsville and Edgewood.

"If you were me, what would you be looking at here in terms of improvements?" Craig asked Capt. John Bowman, commander of the Northern Precinct.

"Manpower," Bowman replied. "We can make do with what we have, but it would be nice to have more. We need supervisors as well. The span of control should be five to seven [deputies to a supervisor]."

Craig said he wants to take a long-term look at staffing needs and that he has demonstrated his commitment to public safety. In the most recent budget, the "keystone" of his $11 million increase in public safety spending was an additional 50 sheriff's deputies, corrections officers and police support staff members.

His Democratic opponent, Ann C. Helton, said Craig's efforts have been election-year "window dressing."

"I certainly wouldn't raise anybody's expectations, even budgetarily, until we improve and do something better in terms of recruitment," Helton said. "They have proven to be fairly inefficient in their recruitment in the past. You better make sure you turn this money over to an agency that can actually produce results."

Both candidates for sheriff - Democrat L. Jesse Bane and Republican Norman R. Cochran - said they support salary increases for deputies. They are awaiting the results of a study that compares data from other jurisdictions.

"We are no longer competing with other agencies; our salaries and benefits aren't on par. That has to be improved if we're going to attract people we want to attract," said Bane, who was endorsed by the deputies' union.

Bane and Cochran also advocate a cadet program to attract youths to law enforcement.

"There's things the office does that cadets can handle," Cochran said.

Cochran, who oversees career development and training for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said the recruiting push for corrections officers needed to staff the detention center needs to begin immediately.

For Craig, Tuesday's tour offered reassurance that additional efforts in Edgewood to combat gang activity have been paying dividends.

"It's good to see the community continue to be involved," he said after touring the Police Athletic League center on Brookside Drive.

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