At a recent packed town hall meeting called to discuss the opioid drug problem, Wilkens Police and Community Relations Organization President Otis Collins made a pitch for new members.
“We are looking for people that are police-friendly,” Collins said, urging those on hand to spend $5 per year to be a part of the organization, which connects police to the community at monthly meetings. “If you don’t like police officers, this is not for you.”
Capt. Eliot Latchaw, who took command of southwest Baltimore County’s Wilkens precinct last month, thanked Collins, then added a correction.
“Even if you don’t like us, come and get involved,” he told the group of more than 100 people, a crowd Latchaw said was unusually large because people are concerned about opioids. “You’ll realize who we really are: We’re good people.”
Latchaw, 42, who stands at 6 feet 4 inches and who his predecessor Maj. Robert McCullough jokingly labels “Prince Charming,” calls himself a “big crime fighter.”
He said his goal is to fight crime by working with the community.
“We’re relying on you like you’re relying on us,” he said at the town hall, urging people to call the police when they see something suspicious in their neighborhoods. “We don’t have crystal balls. We need your help."
Latchaw leads 133 officers and four staff members at the Wilkens precinct, which serves 78,000 people in southwest Baltimore County, at a time that some say is challenging for police across the country. Opioid addiction is soaring, across the U.S. and locally; and high-profile incidents like the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore have brought heightened attention to the use of force by police.
Baltimore County has had its share of scrutiny — in August, an off-duty police officer fatally shot Christopher Clapp, who was suspected of shoplifting, outside a Catonsville Giant. The county state’s attorney ruled the shooting justified.
In early October, shortly after Latchaw began his new position, the county announced it had finished rolling out body cameras for all Baltimore County police officers.
“We are given these, as our ‘Big Brother,’ for lack of better words,” Latchaw said, glancing at the small black camera on his shoulder.
“We don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “We know what we’re doing. These cameras have helped us way more than ‘exposed us.’”
Even so, he said, police today are held to higher standards than in the past.
“I think police officers now need to be more patient, more professional, than they had to be in the past,” Latchaw said. “Even when we’re taking a lot of abuse, name calling or disrespect, we have to rise above that.”
Cole Weston, president of Baltimore County’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police union, said police officers in the area receive “tremendous support from the community.”
“You’re always going to have a few people who feel differently,” Weston said. “And generally when that’s the case they’re the people who speak the loudest.”
Social media in particular has “made our jobs difficult,” Latchaw said, saying the speed at which information is shared makes people expect immediate answers.
“If I had to ask one thing of the public,” he said, “understand that we are probably tougher on ourselves than anybody else will be. So if we make a mistake, we’re gonna own it."
In addition to higher scrutiny, Latchaw said the rising opioid epidemic has put more responsibilities on the shoulders of his police officers than ever before.
Baltimore County had 305 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, up by more than 100 from the year before, according to a Maryland Department of Health report. The county’s numbers were the second-highest in Maryland, matched only by Baltimore City.
As of Oct. 3, the Wilkens precinct had 34 fatal overdoses, the second highest total among 10 precincts in the county, Latchaw said.
Latchaw said overdoses have become a regular part of policing. Officers are often the first on scene, he said, and often have to administer naloxone nasal spray to save overdose patients.
“If you told me 20 years ago, you’re going to be saving addicts’ lives spraying Narcan,” Latchaw said, referring to the brand name for the overdose treatment, “I’d say, ‘That’s the medic’s job.’”
“It’s just a whole other gamut of it,” he said. “We’re social workers, we’re [emergency medical technicians], we’re guidance counselors.”
“Police officers have always worn many hats,” Weston, the union president, said.
Latchaw said he tries to help his officers through all those responsibilities by “leading from the front,” doing what he expects his subordinates to do.
On his way into work one recent morning, he heard on his radio that there was a car crash on Route 40 in Catonsville. He said he knew the precinct was busy, so he swung by himself and wrote up the report.
“I think it’s important to never think that you’re better than anybody,” Latchaw said. “I think everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time.”
For Latchaw, a Dulaney High graduate whose hobbies include hunting and crabbing, work in the field comes easy.
The captain said he was hooked on police work in his teens when the golf course in Timonium where he worked was robbed and he provided information to county police to identify the culprit. He entered the force as a cadet at age 19, working undercover to find drug dealers at Dundalk High School.
“I am not one to sit behind a desk and learn mundane knowledge,” Latchaw said. “It was the whole gamut of that world that appealed to me. Helping people, but fighting crime and locking up the bad guys. I was in."
Latchaw said he is looking forward to the challenge of working at the Wilkens precinct, which he said has a diverse population, both ethnically and economically.
“There’s a huge, eclectic mix of people here, which I love,” he said.
Looking to the future, Latchaw said his top priority will be fighting violent crime — which increased by 30 percent in the Wilkens precinct in the first half of 2017, compared to the past five years, mirroring trends across the county — and improving quality of life for people who live in trouble spots.
One positive sign, he said, is that the week of Oct. 23, the Wilkens precinct was not on Baltimore County’s weekly trend sheet, meaning there were no new rising crime patterns for the precinct to address that week.
On four occasions in meetings, the captain brought up one particular crime. A woman was beaten last month outside her Baltimore Highlands home during an attempted carjacking, a crime that made Latchaw sputter: “Why?"
“I want people to be safe where they live,” he said. “A 52-year-old woman who comes home at night, accosted trying to go into the front door of her home, injuries, taken of her car she works hard to pay for — no. Not acceptable.”
As of last Friday, Latchaw said the police were working on leads, but had no suspects.
At the town hall on opioids, that woman sat in the front row, a purple bruise above her eye. She raised her hand.
“I’m frightened,” she said. “I don’t want to walk out of my house to go to work.”
“If that’s the incident I think it is,” Latchaw said, “We’re on it.”