County Linking Officers To Beat

Police Assigned To Villages Of Wilde Lake, Owen Brown

August 02, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

At a time when police departments across the country are trying to find ways to build public trust, Howard County is turning to the old practice of walking the beat by continuing to link individual officers with communities.

A program that began a decade ago in areas designated as "hot spots" for trouble recently added what have been called community resource officers who are specifically assigned to the Wilde Lake and Owen Brown villages of Columbia.

"Take a look at Wilde Lake, a lot of businesses are moving out. When there's a lack of commercial activity, then other types of activity starts creeping in," Police Chief William McMahon said.

Both communities have been in the news recently because of crime. Last week, a man was stabbed on a basketball court in Wilde Lake. Last month, a Columbia man was shot after a fight on a basketball court in Owen Brown.

Neither assailant has been caught.

McMahon said that in the four other areas that had previously been assigned individual officers - Harper's Choice, Long Reach, Oakland Mills and North Laurel - the move has helped residents develop better relationships with police.

"Because they're there all the time, unlike the beat officer that switches every day or every other day, it's not just the community that gets to know them, they can start interacting with juvenile services or the state's attorneys or the homeowners associations," McMahon said.

"They end up being brokers of agencies, making sure they get the right resources in the right places."

In the past, McMahon said, individual agencies "were doing their job." With the addition of community-based officers, information relevant to more than one agency will be shared on a more immediate basis.

Phillip Kirsch, who has lived in Wilde Lake for nearly 21 years and is on the Columbia Association board representing his community, said he thinks adding a satellite station will help deter criminal activity.

"I don't think [crime is] a real problem," said Kirsch, who was unaware of the stabbing on Wednesday. "We don't want to see it get worse."

Though both have been on the job since July 1, the two officers assigned - Sarah Miller to Owen Brown and Anthony Nigro to Wilde Lake - will be officially introduced when Howard County joins other jurisdictions across the country in National Night Out activities Tuesday.

Now in its 26th year, the event is designed to raise public awareness among residents about how to combat drug and other criminal activity, forge partnerships with police agencies and send a message to those breaking the law that they are being watched.

"In a patrol function, I'm there to assist them with their needs and their calls for service," said Miller, who transferred to Howard County last year after spending a year with the Anne Arundel County police force. "This allows me to be on a more personal level with the community, on a first-name basis, to really develop a partnership with these people, almost a friendship."

It will also give Miller and Nigro, a former Baltimore police officer and criminal investigator who has worked in Howard County for the past seven years, a chance to find out who is causing problems for residents in the respective communities.

"They quickly know who the troublemakers are in their community, and we're going to focus some attention on them," McMahon said. "The rest of the community deserves to go about their business without having to worry about being robbed or having their cars broken into."

Said Lt. Robert Castor, deputy district commander of the Southern District who oversees the community resource program, "It dramatically improves communication ... so we're not finding out after the fact, we're finding out as things happen."

The Wilde Lake station will be located in the village center on Twin Rivers Road, at the former site of the Feet First store. The Owen Brown station is still being constructed, but will be in the village center behind the tennis club adjacent to the senior center.

"We try to find a location that provides the residents and the merchants some visibility of us," McMahon said.

According to McMahon, the officers assigned will be there 40 hours a week, with a combination of day and night shifts. McMahon stressed that they would not be sitting at the station, but would be out in the community. Miller and Nigro will be backed up by two platoons of officers.

"We have to create expectations for people, and the expectations should not be that there's going to be an officer sitting in that office 24-7," McMahon said. "If they need 911, they need to call 911."

National Night Out

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