Chief asks for more officers

More modern and diversified force is sought

January 24, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

The Howard County Police Department would dramatically expand, modernize and diversify its force under a more than 45-page vision plan Chief William J. McMahon has proposed to County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council.

Although McMahon did not request a specific number of new officers, Ulman said this week that his goal is to add about 100 officers, a 25 percent increase, during the next five years. The Police Department is authorized to employ 390 officers.

"I stress that this is a ballpark figure," Ulman said. "The high-400s is the kind of range that I would like to see. Whether or not we can afford to get there, we're going to find out through the budget process."

McMahon's top priority is to increase the number of officers on regular patrol. Howard County deploys 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents - the national average is 3.5, according to the report.

"Our patrol staffing has not significantly changed in seven or eight years," he said.

McMahon said an increase was needed even though calls for police service declined 8 percent in the county from 2003 to 2005 and overall crime rates remained steady. Data for last year are not available.

Last week, McMahon attributed the drop in calls to false-alarm legislation. The county fines residents if police have to repeatedly and needlessly respond to their homes for accidentally activated alarms.

McMahon also said that he wants to hire more computer forensics experts - the department has one - and devote more resources to investigating Internet crime. He also wants to build a repeat-offender unit, which would target known offenders and survey them until they commit a crime.

"It's often the case that we know a guy is doing armed robberies, but we're only able to lock him up for doing something else," McMahon said. "That requires us to devote the time and energy to watching him."

The county has struggled to recruit new officers amid competition from other police departments and the large number of federal agencies in the area.

The report outlines proposals to improve recruitment. McMahon wants approval from the County Council to offer sign-on bonuses and hire slightly above authorized staffing levels to compensate for the time it takes to train officers.

"This is not like 7-Eleven," McMahon said. "Recruits can't start tomorrow. It takes 18 months to see the benefit of a new recruiting class."

Among McMahon's most controversial proposals is suspension of the county's 60 college-credit requirement.

Ulman said that if he agrees to that, recruits would be required to continue their education at a community college while they worked and eventually reach the standard. But the county would pick up the bill, which Cpl. Jason Baker, interim president of the county's Police Officers' Association, estimated at $1,900 per recruit.

"If this is enacted as part of an overall plan to increase the strength of the force, and the chief believed it was important to being able to expand, then it would be an investment well worth it," Ulman said. "If, as we go through this process and think we don't need to do that, then it's off the table."

Ulman also added that he would not sacrifice the quality of the department's officers.

"We haven't been embroiled in some of the nonsense that has affected other departments to some extent because of our high standards, including the credit rule," he said.

Ulman and McMahon expressed concerns about the diversity of the force. The county employs one Spanish-speaking 911 dispatcher and one Korean-speaking officer.

"I'm good friends with an officer who speaks Spanish, and when I went on a ride-along with him, it seemed he spent half of his night just driving around translating for other officers," Ulman said.

Ulman also wants the force to hire a consultant to review its policies and practices toward women in light of two recent sexual harassment lawsuits that the county settled for a combined $190,000.

"We actually talked about this in our interview before I offered [McMahon] the job, and it was his suggestion that it would be helpful to have an outsider come in," Ulman said. "I don't think there's anything positive that comes from ignoring potential issues. Instead, let's figure what the issues are, even if that exposes things we may not want people to know."

McMahon wants to equip officers with additional technologies. He wants officers to be able to electronically issue traffic tickets in the same way shoppers get credit-card receipts, add Tasers to officers' array of weapons, and lobby the General Assembly to approve speed cameras for the county.

In terms of buildings, McMahon said the Child Advocacy Center, which deals with children who have been physically and sexually abused, needs to be relocated from a single-family home in Ellicott City to a larger space.

McMahon also wants to build a hangar for the department's new helicopter. The old one is housed in a facility in Anne Arundel County that Ulman described as "an old barn" without sides.

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