When Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner took over the department last summer, he identified enhancements in community policing as a focus.
Since then Gardner has announced a series of initiatives aimed at integrating community into the department's current ranks. The list includes creating a community outreach division (previously it was just a section), sanctioning a pathway patrol program and placing full-time officers as liaisons to different segments of the community -- from youth to seniors.
The ripple effects have trickled down to the soon-to-be newest county police officers: Academy Class 39. The 22-member class, as part of the enhanced community focus, has started a new fundraiser this year called Sleep Out to End Homelessness.
The overnight event, to be held March 19 at Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, will raise money, awareness and donations for Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's lead agency in providing services for the homeless in the county.
Recruits will serve and share a meal with men, women and children spending the night at the church, a designated cold weather shelter.
The class then will spend the night in the church parking lot to raise awareness for the cause. Supplies and monetary donations are being solicited by the recruits for every hour they spend outside.
As of Tuesday, the academy had raised $1,485, according to Grassroot's website, although there is more in cash donations that has not yet been totaled, according to the department.
Gardner said each academy class is tasked with participating in some type of fundraising events. Typically, those events have been to benefit the Maryland Special Olympics through events such as the Polar Bear Plunge.
This year, however, the academy was unable to participate because of their training schedule, which opened the door for the sleep-out event, which places more emphasis on community policing.
According to Police Officer Ronald Wetherson, one of the recruits in the academy class, the group chose the event for two specific reasons: to support Grassroots, which the department works closely with on a daily basis, and to reach out to the county's homeless population.
"We started off with picking Grassroots because they help out the department a lot," Wetherson said.
He added: "Interacting with the homeless population at the shelters, it's good to get face time with them, have a meal with them, and get to know each other on a personal level. One human to another."
The issue homelessness has become a flash point in Howard because the government's plan to develop a Day Resource Center and 35 efficiency apartments for the county's chronically homeless population has received some backlash from residents of the county's Route 1 corridor, where the center will be built.
Gardner said the event is an opportunity for the department to raise awareness for the issue, which may fly under the radar in a county as affluent as Howard.
"People think homelessness in Howard County is not a big issue, and it is an issue," Gardner said. "It is important for us to have an understanding for that problem. To try to address a community issue, and bring an understanding to the recruits."
Additionally, the event benefits Grassroots, which has worked well with the department.
"The opportunity for Grassroots staff and recruits to interact through this activity will open the door for recruits to learn about our homeless citizens, available resources, and how we can work together to respond with compassion and competence to those in need," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots.
Lt. Dave Abuelhawa, of the department's training division, said Grassroots is a key resource for patrol officers.
"They are very helpful in what is a gray area for us," Abuelhawa said.. "There are some times where police officers can go to the scene of a suicidal subject where it is very obvious that the person intended to harm themselves or someone else. But when there are not obvious signs, then the mobile crisis team can be called in and, based on their experience, can make a determination."
Mental health awareness, and specifically how it is integrated into police departments, is another key initiative for the department.
The focus predates Gardner's tenure as chief. It dates back to December 2013, when the department hired a mental health liaison. Gardner said he plans to maintain that momentum.
Abuelhawa said the department, with help from Grassroots, has "been ahead of the curve" in addressing mental health issues..