Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner Wednesday announced initiatives to improve the department's community policing efforts, headlined by the creation of a pathway patrol program, a representative mix of community liaisons and the need for trust between police and the public.
"It has long been my intention to conduct an evaluation of our community policing strategies to determine our effectiveness. What are we doing right? What could we do better? And, more importantly, what does our community think?" Gardner said at a news conference at police headquarters in Ellicott City.
The initiatives include making the department's Community Outreach section a division, which Gardner said will have more resources and personnel.
The division will add a pathway patrol program, which Gardner said will be staffed by seven patrol officers likely working in two shifts, seven days a week. The officers will walk and bike the community's expansive pathway system, which includes 93.5 miles of pathways in Columbia alone.
Gardner said the program is not in response to any particular recent incidents on the pathways.
"We are trying to promote the atmosphere of safety on our paths," he said.
He added the department will rely on foot and bike patrols to start, but that the department could could use segways and motorized scooters as well.
There also will be a diverse group of community liaisons, including a multi-cultural liaison officer, a senior citizen liaison officer, a youth services liaison officer and multiple community resource officers.
Gardner said he plans to use existing police officers and resources to staff the division.
County Councilman Calvin Ball said the council is considering a bill that would enhance community policing. The legislation asks that the department's Citizen Advisory Council study police technology and methods and present recommendations to the department.
"We will research and evaluate the best practices and what works best here in Howard County to ensure we have the best technologies and are a model community for public safety," Ball said at the news conference.
"We don't have many of the challenges neighboring counties and states have, but we can always improve," Ball said.
Among the things they will study are body cameras on officers, a technology that has received national attention after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year.
"I look at that as another tool for us to consider," Gardner said. "Is it for every agency? Every community? I don't know, and I don't know what's in store here for Howard County."
Ball mentioned a review of the county's community resource officers, which are stationed in small satellite offices across the county.
Linda Lee Hickerson, chair of the citizen committee, said the group is eager to "delve more deeply into the issues" of community policing.
In his opening remarks, Gardner touched on recent events across the country, specifically Ferguson, where police tactics and a lack of community trust "have been brought into question."
"We are very fortunate in Howard County to have a strong relationship with our community," he said. "We have not had those problems in Howard County. Relationship building must be a continuous effort, even in the best of times."