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For new Laurel police chief, an emphasis on community

New Laurel Chief of Police Russell Hamill sits in his office at the LPD headquarters on 5th Street.
New Laurel Chief of Police Russell Hamill sits in his office at the LPD headquarters on 5th Street. (Nate Pesce / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Russ Hamill, unlike many cops, actually likes watching police shows on TV.

Hamill, the new police chief in Laurel, says shows like CBS’s “Blue Bloods” portray the very sort of “police family” he’s experienced throughout his career.

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A 30-year veteran of the Montgomery County Police Department, Hamill, 57, can quickly list off all of his family members who’ve been in the force, including his wife, a homicide detective, and his father-in-law, once an assistant chief.

Hamill himself has served in a wide variety of positions. He began as a patrol officer, and later worked in narcotics and plainclothes units. He also served as a police academy instructor. Most recently, he was an assistant chief and then acting chief of the Montgomery County Police Department.

He still recalls the moment he decided he wanted to be a police officer.

One March day when he was young, police cars flooded his cul-de-sac in Rockville. Later, he found out two officers had been killed near what is now Montgomery Mall, and officers had converged on the police captain’s home down the street.

“That struck me, as a kid, watching what was transpiring, seeing the police officers there for each other,” he said.

The small town feeling he remembers from his childhood in Rockville is part of what drew him to Laurel. His parents lived on Main Street there, and he and his friends walked everywhere – to the neighborhood pool, to restaurants, to the rec center.

“When I saw Main Street at the festival I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’” he said. “It was a flashback.”

As Laurel’s new chief, Hamill has set his sights on creating a strong relationship between the police and the community. He’s spent the better part of his first weeks in office stopping by community meetings.

He says some of his fondest memories from the force came during his time on a county community policing team.

During conversations with community leaders while the team was assigned to Gaithersburg, for example, they uncovered one simple way to try and reduce crime.The community told the police the first step was to do away with all of the abandoned cars in the area, where they believed criminals stored weapons and drugs. So, Hamill said, he and his team started placing removal notices on the seemingly abandoned vehicles they found and then had them towed after the proper time elapsed, and crime rates dipped.

His team also worked with the public works department, to ensure there was adequate lighting throughout the community, and focused on being more visible in the area. The deterrents helped better the area without putting people behind bars, Hamill said.

So far, during conversations with the Laurel community, he’s learned that a major concern is cars speeding along Main Street, so he’s considering traffic-calming measures.

Building a trusting relationship between police and the communities they serve is a crucial mission, said Hamill, pointing to the shooting in 2014 of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., an event that triggered widespread civil unrest and distrust of the police.

Hamill also talked about when snipers targeted, ambushed and shot 12 police officers in Dallas in 2016, killing five of them.

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Hamill recalled that shortly after the shooting, a group of teenagers were lingering in his police department’s secured parking lot. His colleagues, anxious after the killings, discussed what they ought to do, and Hamill volunteered to approach the them.

He quickly realized the teens, holding their phones aloft, were simply playing Pokemon Go.

Hamill also wants to focus on improving the department’s recruitment and retention of officers by making sure pay and benefits packages are competitive, and by offering weekend times to take the police entrance exam.

Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said Hamill stood out during interviews because, when asked about what he’d do during his first day as chief, Hamill said he’d start setting up meetings with every employee under his watch to talk with them about what they’d like to see during his tenure.

“I've already met with my four commanders repeatedly,” Hamill said. “They're probably tired of me already.”

There are 60 sworn officers in the police department, according to Laura Guenin, police department spokesperson, and the starting salary for a patrol officer is $49,714.

A father of five, Hamill has coached youth sports teams since he was in high school. In his office, minutes from Main Street, photos of his son in his Good Counsel High School uniform feature prominently along with a commemorative baseball bat from his time as coach of a team of players from both the U.S. and Japan.

It’s all part of the mentality his parents taught him, Hamill said – service before self.

That also led him toward law enforcement after he graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in government and politics. He later got a law degree from Howard University.

He was an invaluable mentor for Nick Picerno, who worked as a homicide detective alongside Hamill’s wife and attended law school around the same time Hamill did.

“He was a very good sounding board for me during those four years through law school,” Picerno said.

It’s easy for Hamill, who also teaches two courses in the University of Maryland’s criminology and criminal justice department, to captivate students and colleagues alike with his stories from more than three decades on the force.

“People get sucked into his stories and all the sudden it’s two hours later,” said Jason Cokinos, who served as Hamill’s executive officer during his time as an assistant chief of the Montgomery County Police Department.

Cokinos described Hamill as deeply analytical and decisive.

He also honors those who came before him, Picerno said. During meetings, Hamill would often reference a wall featuring every police chief in Montgomery County’s history.

“He would look at the wall and be like ‘I wonder if Chief McAuliffe had to deal with something like this back in the day?’” Picerno said.

When important personnel decisions came to his desk, Hamill never lost sight of the fact that he was making an impact on a person’s future, Picerno said.

“He never treated officers as though they were just names on a white board,” he said.

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