At his first Mayor and Common Council meeting as head of the Westminster Police Department, Chief Thomas Ledwell outlined his policing and public safety initiatives during a week in which a rape was reported at a public library and a trooper shot a man after being stabbed.
Ledwell, who headed the Frederick Police Department before Westminster and was touted as a data-driven policeman when nominated by the mayor, said he planned to restructure patrols to put a greater emphasis on downtown, institute bicycle patrols and boost the department’s social media presence.
“Police coverage through the entire city limits is vitally important, but the downtown area has unique circumstances that I think merit increased bicycle patrol use and tools such as that,” Ledwell said at the Monday meeting. “Studies have shown you have to address not only actual crime disorder, but perception or fear.”
Recent incidents pushed public safety to the forefront at the Monday meeting. A rash of property destruction — notably tire slashing and other vehicle damage— was reported and a Maryland State Police trooper fatally shot a man who allegedly stabbed him just outside of city limits Monday. And a man was charged Thursday with raping a developmentally delayed woman at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library.
“This type of incident of sexual assault is unacceptable and it’s not going to be tolerated in the city,” Councilman Ben Yingling said, suggesting that a greater collaborative effort with local nonprofits aiding sexual assault victims could be beneficial.
“I’m a Main Street business owner and I’m a resident and I’m familiar with the apprehensions of our citizens as it relates to optics and safety,” Yingling added.
On Monday, a trooper fatally shot a Westminster man after the man stabbed him with a knife, state police said. The trooper was responding to reports of vehicle damage, the state agency said.
Ledwell said there were 33 reports of malicious destruction of property and his department will soon confirm — based on still images from video surveillance footage — whether the slashed tires were related to the shooting.
The sexual assault, Ledwell said, was investigated by detectives at the Carroll County Advocacy and Investigation Center, which handles any sex offense in the county that’s fourth-degree or above.
“We’re always making efforts to stop (crime),” Mayor Joe Dominick told the Times after the March 11 meeting. “But sometimes you have two things happen back-to-back and there’s no rhyme or reason, they’re awful; they were awful things.”
Dominick said he looked forward to the changes Ledwell plans to implement in the department.
Ledwell said after the meeting that he believes in a three-pillar policing strategy: data-driven policing, problem-oriented policing — preventing, when possible, officers from repeatedly responding to the same calls for service by addressing the core issue — and community-oriented policing strategies.
“There have been studies that show there is weak correlation between actual crime and perception of crime,” Ledwell told the Times. “They require separate strategies to affect, attack both of those things.”
The city’s Public Safety Advisory Council — a mostly volunteer body created by the council, including the chief of police and a council liaison — conducted a survey in 2018 to gauge how safe city residents feel.
The monthlong survey, which garnered 1,296 respondents, found that most residents feel safe at home, but less so as they ventured into public areas, including downtown. There are about 18,600 residents in Westminster, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Part 1 Crime, which includes murder, rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and auto theft, among other offenses, decreased more than 25 percent from 2013 through 2017, Westminster Police Department statistics show.
Crime statistics from January 2018 through the end of July that year showed the city continued along a five-year trend of steady decrease in serious crime. Part 1 crime dropped 15 percent over the first seven months of 2018, compared to a year prior, police data show. The Times requested more up-to-date Westminster crime data Tuesday.
Ledwell said his department will take aim at both actual crime and the perception of crime.
“Some of the strategies, evidenced based, that have been proven to work involve face-to-face interaction with members of public during non-enforcement actions,” Ledwell said. “That means getting out of cars either on foot, we have a T3 (like a three-wheel Segway) or I really like bicycle patrol.”
That’s why Ledwell and a few of his officers will be completing bicycle patrol training at McDaniel College.
Bicycle patrolling, he said, provides better mobility than being on foot — officers can still cover significant portions of town — and allow for face-to-face interaction, which can help address people’s perception of crime.
“They’re quiet,” he said. “You can go in and out of alleys, up streets, and see things that you might not be able to see if I (sic) was driving around in a police car and people saw me coming before I got there.”
More face-to-face interaction means police officers can create partnerships with local people, resulting in more eyes and ears on the ground for law enforcement that can’t be everywhere all the time, Ledwell said. Citizens can notice trends in criminal behavior that can enable officers to more effectively budget their time in certain areas, he added.
“(Ledwell) talked about the bike patrol and the fact that he wants to put a couple guys through the school, and himself because he intends to get out and do some bike patrol and walking patrol,” Councilman Tony Chiavacci, the public safety liaison, told the Times after the meeting.
Ledwell said the department is looking at realigning the beats, or patrol areas, to create one that allows “an officer to take more ownership of the downtown area.”
There are currently four patrolling, according to the police department beat map, and downtown is divided among three.
“There’s a tremendous amount of business that happens out on (Md. Route) 140 and it’s valuable and it’s a lot of revenue that goes through all those businesses, but by and large people are going in, they’re conducting their business and moving on,” Chiavacci said. “Downtown’s different. It’s the heart of the city. It’s where people hang out, they go and they walk their dog.”
Though crime hasn’t proven to be hugely prevalent downtown, it’s what people perceive to be scary that’s a problem, Chiavacci said. “If you’ve got police officers on bikes and you’ve got police officers walking around on foot patrols and there’s a presence there, I think people feel more comfortable.”
Councilwoman Mona Becker highlighted at the meeting Monday that the Westminster Police Department’s social media and online presence has grown since Ledwell took charge. “It’s been noticed,” she told Ledwell.
“The reality is a lot of people communicate via social media,” the police chief said. “So for us to ignore social media, we’d be remiss. We need to have some presence … to be able to provide information to citizens via social media sources, whether it’s press releases or personal interactions.”
While social media and other factors contribute to the public’s perception of crime, Dominick said, Westminster remains a safe city.
Ledwell made clear he believes it’s important to address both perception and reality.