Direct line for the community

March 23, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,

When Melissa Techentin, the ever-busy president of the Southeastern District police community relations council, needs to troubleshoot a concern in her area, it doesn't take long to reach the right person: She has the cell phone numbers of most police leaders.

Though Techentin's position affords her such access, she's not alone. At community meetings across the city, police routinely give out their cell phone numbers in an attempt to forge stronger ties with the community. And most do so with few restrictions.

"People come to our meetings and don't know what to expect, and when a commander gives out his cell phone, people really do light up and see that police are trying to connect with them," Techentin said. "It's not just a one-time, once-a-month connection to their concerns."

Such dialogue became a point of controversy last week when Eastern District Deputy Maj. Dan A. Lioi was suspended indefinitely after officials learned that he and a community leader who was being sought on a domestic violence warrant had been text messaging on their cell phones. The man, Cleaven Williams, was never detained, and police say that days later he fatally stabbed his wife on a sidewalk outside a city courthouse.

The content of the text messages is being scrutinized as officials consider whether a genuine effort was made to serve the warrant.

In the past, the notion of such access to police leaders might have raised more eyebrows. But it's now common for civic leaders to have speed-dial connections.

For many officers and commanders, "this is not only their jobs but their lives, and they want to be as close to the community as possible," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. "It's community policing at its finest."

Even Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III isn't stingy with his cell phone number, with leaders such as Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, head of Baltimore's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, boasting that he has Bealefeld on his contact list.

Under a proposal floated by City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, police would begin texting not just activists but potentially thousands of residents at a time, albeit more formally, with text-message crime alerts. "There's a lot more that can be done to break down the barriers of communication and trust between the citizens and the Police Department," Rawlings-Blake said.

Not all police are comfortable handing out their numbers. At a recent community meeting in the Southeast District, Lt. Richard Gibson gave out his personal number without blinking, drawing some mock gasps from a few other officers in attendance.

"We work hard to break down barriers that we have with the public," Gibson, who heads a squad of detectives, said after the meeting. "If we establish trust with the community, they're going to assist us more with investigations and will be more honest with certain crime problems they have. Even if it doesn't directly involve me, I can still take their information and talk to people that can make that impact."

Gibson said he has received phone calls deep into the night, but he says most people are respectful enough not to call at extreme hours.

John E. Gavrilis sees the situation from both sides. A retired Baltimore police officer, he is now a lieutenant colonel with the Maryland Transit Administration Police. But he's also a community leader, serving as chief executive officer of Baltimore's Greektown Community Development Corp.

"I think [access] has always been an extension of your work and how you do your job," said Gavrilis, who remembers handing out his pager number years ago. "Most commanders nowadays have a good connection and a good relationship with the community, and as such, they share those numbers with the community leaders."

"Policing is definitely not a 9-to-5 job," Techentin said. "Maybe that was 40 years ago, but that doesn't exist anymore."

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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