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Harford sheriff seeks to improve community relations from non-law enforcement perspective

Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler hosted the first meeting Thursday of the Sheriff Community Board, a group that will bring a non-police perspective to helping the agency build a better relationship with the community.
Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler hosted the first meeting Thursday of the Sheriff Community Board, a group that will bring a non-police perspective to helping the agency build a better relationship with the community. (Courtesy Harford Sheriffs Offic / Baltimore Sun)

Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has formed the Sheriff’s Community Board in an effort to build better relationships with the community from a non-law enforcement perspective.

The 18-member group met for the first time Tuesday and, after a four-week orientation on the scope and responsibility of the agency and how it operates, will likely meet quarterly to discuss what the Sheriff’s Office can do better to improve its relationship with the public, Gahler said.

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“The Sheriff’s Office has always been very good at having community input, community involvement, listening to and working with the community," Gahler said. “This is the latest step to build that one step further.”

He doesn’t have any specific goals and objectives from the group. “I want to have better relationship with the community, open lines of communication with the community,” Gahler said. “I want them to give me the perspective I don’t get from being trained to think like a police officer for 35 years.”

Gahler likened this new group to the Hope4Harford group and the diversity hiring group, both created to take a non-law enforcement look at how the sheriff’s office could combat the opioid epidemic and make the office more representative of the community as a whole.

The Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort (HOPE) workgroup was the impetus behind the awareness signs, the HOPE House, the Pledge Program and the Substance and Behavioral Health Unit at the Harford County Detention Center, Gahler said.

“[Those initiatives] did not come out of my mind because I think like a cop,” he said. “It’s because we brought people in and we listened to them.”

The work of the diversity hiring group has led to changes in recruiting and retention for the Sheriff’s Office, including lifting a ban on visible tattoos.

All of the agency’s law enforcement positions are filled, and if “all holds,” every correctional deputy position will be filled, which hasn’t been the case in at least 18 years, Gahler said.

“We want to continue to build on hiring procedures and requirements, to make sure we still do a good job of recruiting and retention and also the diversity of our office,” Gahler said. “Law enforcement-wise it is not very representative of our community. The office overall is on par with Harford County’s demographics, but looking at just law enforcement, what the citizens see, the men and women on the street, we don’t have great numbers.”

He hopes members of this group will bring the information they get from the Sheriff’s Office back to the community, to share that Harford County is a “very good place” to live, he said.

“We want them to carry back factual information about the great job our deputies do every single day, and better educate members of the community,” Gahler said. “And bring back a non-police perspective of the minds and eyes that are going to look at things a little differently than we’ve all been trained to or experience forces us to.”

In addition to three members appointed by the sheriff, the group will be comprised of representatives from the Harford County executive’s office, the Harford County Council, Harford Chamber of Commerce, Harford chapter of the NAACP, each of the county’s seven community advisory boards, LASOS, Harford County Interfaith Committee, Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils and Harford County Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association.

“It is structured to get a cross-section of people who have shown they want to be involved, want to be active, and they represent a cross section of the community,” Gahler said.

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