Property crimes involving drug addicts and highway safety concerns were among topics discussed at two well-attended town hall meetings hosted simultaneously at opposite ends of the county by Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane and his commanders Saturday.
Upward of 200 residents attended one of the two sessions held at the Jarrettsville Library and at the sheriff's Southern Precinct Station in Joppa, according to the sheriff's office. Some of those at the Jarrettsville meeting also expressed concerns about firearms discharges and how deputies interact with the community.
More than 150 people filled the meeting room at the Jarrettsville Library, leaving some standing. Bane, who gave welcoming remarks before leaving to attend the other meeting, invited some of the crowd to join him in Joppa instead; however, it appeared most wanted to stay put.
During the Jarrettsville meeting, Bane and his staff acknowledged burglaries committed by people with drug habits remain a particular problem in the northern half of the county, as do serious traffic accidents, although the sheriff said crime is down overall and more focus is being placed on highway safety enforcement.
Since August, a sheriff's office spokesperson said Tuesday, at least 16 people have been arrested in connection with crimes or suspected crimes in northern Harford in which police believe the perpetrators' drug habits are the motivating factor.
In welcoming the large crowd to the Jarrettsville session, Bane began by explaining the reason for the meeting.
"This is not just a PR thing," he said. "In fact, it has nothing to do with PR. If we want to know what's going on in the community, we have to go out into the community."
Crime, highway safety stats
Bane then introduced members of his command team before posing a question to the audience: "Who here thinks that crime today is worse than it was in 1975?"
About a third of those in the audience raised their hands.
Bane explained that Harford's rate of crimes per 100,000 of population, a common national comparative measurement, was 1,858 in 2011, compared to 4,336 in 1975, almost two and a half times higher.
While state statistics show Harford had the second lowest number of crimes per 100,000 of any major jurisdiction in 2011, behind only Carroll County – a fact Bane has cited previously, the sheriff noted that robberies have increased in 2012 compared to last year, even as other crimes have declined.
Bane also brought up the Safe Streets Program, from which the county received a state grant, which targets violent offenders and, in Bane's words, has "a significant effect on violent crimes."
Discussing traffic, Bane said Harford ranks as the fifth most dangerous jurisdiction in Maryland when it comes to highway fatalities, which this year already exceed the number of deaths in 2011.
"[Traffic] has been a developing issue in the last five years in Harford County," he said. "Traditionally we have spent more resources in fighting crime and not as much on traffic concerns."
Bane noted that a task force comprised of state, county as well as municipal police departments was formed in 2011 to target specific areas in the county where traffic problems occur.
He also mentioned the Data Drive Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, or DDACTS program, which uses statistics and data regarding traffic and maps to reduce crime and traffic related incidents.
Investigative Services Bureau Commander Major Doug Verzi, who took over the meeting after Bane left for the Southern Precinct session, mentioned drug addiction, specifically addiction to pills, as being one of the primary reasons for increased crime in the northern half of the county, most of it involving home break-ins and thefts of personal property.
"It's a terrible, terrible problem at this point," Verzi said, adding that "the biggest problem is that most of these crimes go unreported," because the perpetrator is a relative.
"The best way to get them help is through the system," Verzi said.
Verzi mentioned three specific vehicles the sheriff's office is looking for in connection with burglaries: a red Dodge Dakota truck with extended cab, a silver Jeep or Dodge SUV with blue tape over the driver's side window, as well as a gold sedan.
Residents ask questions
Rosemary Logan, a Jarrettsville resident, asked when residents should call 9-1-1 or use the community policing phone number?
Verzi replied if they see a crime or something else suspicious happening, to call 9-1-1. If they have a law enforcement or other concern that they believe the police can assist with, they should call the community number.
Logan said she has had positive experiences with the sheriff's office, noting that they stopped and checked a suspicious vehicle where she lives.
"They explained everything, and did a great job," Logan said. "We've always had very positive responses in our neighborhood."
Another member of the audience asked if gang activity is a problem in the Jarrettsville area.
"None to speak of," Verzi said. "That doesn't mean that they [gang members] don't live here, but just that there's no activity."
Another resident asked about the Nov. 19 robbery at a home on Paddock Court that was originally reported as a home invasion, but investigators later said one of the alleged robbers was known to one of the occupants of the home.
Verzi responded that the incident is still under investigation; however, it appeared to be a targeted robbery.
One person complained about an incident at her home where police were in her front yard without first speaking to her or her husband. When the couple's dog, who was outside, became agitated, officers came on her property and "maced" her dog, she said. When her husband went outside to ask what was going on, she said, "the police asked him very curtly go back inside the house."
Captain Chris Swain, commander for the Southern Precinct, said in a situation like that, the homeowner should "call the precinct."
"We'll answer and tell you why he needed to do that or if he shouldn't have done that," Swain said.
"If there's something happening around your place, call 9-1-1. If [it's not near your property], let it run its course," he added.
Listening and responding
Following the Jarrettsville meeting, Edward Hopkins, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said interacting with residents was the main reason they held both meetings.
"The sheriff's intent, good or bad, is to have these meetings and hear what people have to say," said Hopkins, who was present for the Jarrettsville session. "We can only correct deficiencies from here if people tell us what those deficiencies are."
As for the concerns discussed about crimes tied to drug abuse, Hopkins said Tuesday there have been 16 people arrested dating back to August in connection with burglaries or suspected attempted break-ins at 18 homes and two pharmacies in northern Harford.
"The drive behind these burglaries is heroin and prescription drug addiction," Hopkins wrote in an e-mail, in which he also described some of the circumstances of the crimes and reiterated what was said Saturday about prevention.
"We are asking neighborhoods to report anything suspicious. Try to get good descriptions and tag numbers where possible. Our best chance of catching these individuals is vigilance in the communities and the communities reporting suspicious circumstances to police immediately."