Howard police extend outreach

Officers try to inform seniors, minorities - growing groups that are often underserved

July 06, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

For Pfc. Holly Burnham, helping the senior citizens of Howard County feel safe is a mission.

And for Cpl. Alan Shaffer, finding a way for minority communities to develop a relationship with the Police Department has become his reason for going to work every day.

Burnham and Shaffer are liaison officers for the Howard County Police Department, which established the positions in November to meet the growing needs of two key segments of the public: seniors and minorities.

"The department recognized the need to evolve and change as the county grows," said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

In Howard County, about 9 percent of the population is 65 or older, according to U.S. census data, and more than 30 percent of residents are members of a racial minority.

Burnham said the primary issues for senior citizens are fraud, identity theft, elder abuse and computer crime. She gives presentations at senior centers and works with Seniors and Law Enforcement Together to filter information from the senior community back to the Police Department.

A primary focus for Burnham is the "Car Fit" program, which started in January. Occupational therapists and police officers give seniors advice on operating their vehicles, including adjusting mirrors, seats and other settings. They also receive information on seat cushions and other accessories to make their driving safer and more comfortable.

Burnham has teamed up with the county's consumer affairs office to create a presentation called "Arm Yourself with Knowledge," which is being presented at each senior center. Topics focus on crime prevention for senior citizens, who Burnham said are frequent targets for scams and identity theft.

She is also working to develop new materials to be distributed in senior centers in the county.

"The seniors are thrilled, and the Office on Aging [has had] a great response," Burnham said.

A patrol officer for many years, Burnham said she often saw how criminals victimized older people.

"They're easily taken advantage of," she said. "This is a trusting generation ... and sadly, people prey on them."

That concern for the senior population is one reason Burham was chosen for the job.

"Holly has a history of working with crime prevention and really worked with senior issues many years ago," Llewellyn said. "Holly always seemed drawn to working with senior citizens in the county."

As multicultural liaison officer, Shaffer organizes programs dealing with different groups in the county.

In June, for example, he met with members and leaders of a Korean church in Ellicott City to talk to juveniles. In March, he had an emergency-preparedness meeting with the Korean community during which residents could engage in discussion and offer suggestions.

He is putting together a domestic violence training class for churches and schools to present to the Spanish-speaking community.

Shaffer's target audience, however, is youth, especially middle and high school students. He makes it a point to remind them that they have an advantage in the work force if they are bilingual and that there are other options for minorities besides gangs and crime.

He also reminds them of the importance of associating themselves with the right crowds.

"When I reach out to the kids in the middle schools and high schools, it gives us the opportunity to work on our recruiting efforts as well," Shaffer said in reference to recruiting minorities for the Police Department.

A native of Puerto Rico, Shaffer said he considered himself a good candidate for the new position because much of his work over the past eight years has involved interacting with the community. The effort is important because fears of being deported and unfamiliarity with the police often make people reluctant to call for help.

"A lot of the cases go unreported, and we don't want that to happen," Shaffer said.

Last month, Shaffer went to Hispanic-owned businesses with brochures titled, "No tenga miedo: Llame el policia," which means, "Don't be scared: Call the police." The brochures list emergency numbers and explain that callers can remain anonymous. Shaffer said he hopes to have the brochure translated into other languages.

Llewellyn said Shaffer is a natural fit for the position because as a Spanish-speaking officer, he had close ties to the Hispanic community and had firsthand knowledge of working with minority communities.

"Because of our cultural divide in the county, I think it's very important," said Shaffer, a Puerto Rico native. "A lot of people don't know where to turn."

Both Burnham and Shaffer said they have enjoyed the jobs so far, but sometimes working with victims can be difficult.

"The most frustrating thing for me is when I'm an interpreter, and I'm dealing with issues of a violent nature, like child sex abuse," Shaffer said.

In December, Shaffer worked with Orioles player Melvin Mora to present Wal-Mart gift cards to elementary school students. He said one teacher pointed out a little boy and said that he could now go out and buy himself a pair of shoes.

"I really enjoy the 'thank yous' that I get," Shaffer said. "It makes you feel good."

Burnham said that the reward from helping someone outweighs the disappointments. For example, she still keeps in touch with one woman in Savage who was the victim of a driveway resurfacing scam and lost more than $3,000.

"She's still out her money, and she's still fearful," Burnham said. "It was very, very sad. But [helping others is] why I do this job."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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