The community and local police can come together and work together as long as there are open lines of communication, and those communication lines were open Tuesday night at the first Law Enforcement Conversation with Our Community.
Law enforcement leaders in Harford County, including the Sheriff's Office, Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments and Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack, updated community members on the state of law enforcement in Harford County during a two-and-a-half-hour presentation and question and answer session at the Chesapeake Center dining room at Harford Community College.
"We started the GrassRoots Steering Foundation almost 20 years ago and it's been tough, but I can honestly say police relations have gotten better through collaborative relationships and open door policies," one of the foundation's founders, Tandra Ridgley, said as the meeting came to an end. "The lines of communication are still open, and I can talk about issues facing my community, the African American Community."
Ridgley said she was inspired to hold such a community event after the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and she sought out help and blessings from Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler for the forum.
"I love this county. I didn't appreciate it growing up. I went to Washington, D.C., and I ran back to Harford County," she said. "I want Harford County to continue to remain peaceful and welcoming for everyone."
Gahler was joined by Aberdeen Chief Henry Trabert, Bel Air Chief Charles Moore, Havre de Grace Capt. Wayne Young and Bel Air Barrack Commander Lt. Tim Mullin, each of whom talked about their community policing efforts as well as other police efforts in their jurisdictions. the five law enforcement officials also answered questions and responded comments from the 100 people, mostly African-American, who attended.
"The most important thing for Aberdeen is the relationship between the police and the citizens. Once you connect with people, the citizens, they connect with you. It makes my job easier, you feel better about your neighborhood, safer. It just makes it a better place to live and sometimes in law enforcement we forget that," Trabert said. "I feel like we're building a better community."
Many of the questions from those attending focused on what Harford law enforcement is doing to keep people who have served jail time from going right back in once they're released and how police can reach children in the community.
Harford needs a transitional program for the men and women who are being released from jail, Ridgley said.
"They can't get no jobs, they got no where to live. What can they do? They go back to the same lifestyle. How do you find a job with an ankle monitor on?" Myrtle Ridgley said. "They need that to be successful, to live their lives."
The national recidivism rate is 45 percent, while in Harford it's in the upper 30 percent range, Harford County Detention Center Warden Michael Capasso said.
He said the detention center has a number of programs to help inmates who are about to be released, including faith-based and self-help programs. They also have re-entry programs to help inmates understand what they need to do when they leave, such as checking in with their probation officer, finding a place to live and looking for a job.
Mentors and sponsors work with inmates to follow them once they're on the outside, as well, Capasso said.
"They made a mistake, they've done their time. We need to find a useful place for them in the community or else they'll go right back to jail," Gahler added.
The sheriff said if anyone in the public has an other suggestions for how to help inmates being released acclimate to their freedom, he is willing to meet with them.
"We'll always take ideas to help us improve," he said.
Reflecting the community
Law enforcement leaders also said they are trying to hire more police officers to better reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.
They're running into roadblocks, however, because applicants aren't meeting the high standards the agencies require, the sheriff and the police chiefs said.
In the Town of Bel Air, the population is 89 percent white, 4.4 percent black and 4.3 percent Hispanic, although Chief Moore said the latter figure is probably higher.
Bel Air's department, with 31 sworn officers, is the smallest and probably the least diverse of those in Harford County – 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent female and the rest white, Moore said.
"Our goal is to build better relationships and maintain them with African-Americans, with Hispanics," he said.
The Sheriff's Office "is not that far off of trying to be representative of the community as a whole," Gahler said.
Harford's population of about 255,000 is 13.6 percent black, 80.3 percent white, 3.1 percent Asian and 5.2 percent other, he said, and his agency's deputies are 86 percent white, 11 percent black and 3 percent other.
Regardless, the sheriff said, "we're trying to get those who go out to scenes more representative of the community they serve."
To that end, Gahler and the chiefs said, they're working with people such as Zilpha Smith, president of the Harford chapter of the NAACP, to try and recruit more diverse candidates.
Another issue, they said, is a lack of interested people in becoming police officers, particularly African-Americans.
Regardless of their race or background, the police agencies want to hire the best, and keep them once they do, their leaders said.
"We are all fighting for the same pool of candidates," Havre de Grace's Capt. Young, filling in for Chief Teresa Walter, said. "We only want the best. We recruit the best. We want to keep the best. We want people to stay with the department. The more they've bought into what Havre de Grace Police is, the more conscientious they are and more involved in the community."
Reaching them young
One of the ways the police agencies are trying to build community relationships is by reaching the young people, when it matters most, before the begin to dislike police and before they start making bad decisions.
School resource officers are especially important in building those relationships, Gahler and his colleagues said.
In Bel Air, the "very enthusiastic, very passionate" school resource officer, who also leads the Bel Air Explorer Post 9010, works among eight schools and 6,300 people in them, Moore said.
"It's building character for our young children," he said. "I truly think they're having an impact on children in our schools."
By building those relationships in a positive way at a young age, and teaching children to trust police and see what the officers' roles and responsibilities are, there's a greater chance those same children will one day want to grow up to be a police officer, the law enforcement officials explained. That would not only keep them on the right path, but also improve the demographics of the agencies.
"We need to approach kids earlier, to reach the younger ages, and they'll see law enforcement is a good career," Gahler said.
In Aberdeen, at places like the Boys and Girls Club in particular, some of the members who have been around police officers since they were very young are saying they want to be police officers when they grow up, Trabert said.
He has a resource officer at Aberdeen Middle School, as does the Havre de Grace Police Department at their middle school.
"I know how important the middle school level is. The high school level is sometimes too late," Trabert said.