Though dissimilar in character and demographics, Howard and Prince George's counties have hit upon similar solutions to a common problem: bad blood between the local police and the community.
In Howard, where the police force has been accused of using undue force in dealing with teen-agers, officers are being dispatched to county high schools to walk the halls and give occasional talks on law enforcement. Prince George's, which is still trying to escape a residual image of a brutal and biased department, has opened eight satellite offices in apartment complexes and churches in drug-infested neighborhoods. Officers will function as beat cops and be trained not only in crime prevention, but in public health benefits, substance abuse counseling, trash pickup and other government services.
In both cases, the idea is to foster familiarity between police officers and those they serve under non-confrontational circumstances. In both cases, the idea is long overdue. Too often, the meeting ground between protector and protected is episodic, charged with animosity and apprehension. Putting law enforcement agents into direct and daily contact with citizens will benefit both, providing an opportunity for interaction evocative of earlier times when police patrolled neighborhoods on foot. Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening said the aim is "to return to a more traditional policing" that gets officers out of their patrol cars.
Howard and Prince George's share the stigma of less than cordial relations between police and the community. Yet they are hardly the only jurisdictions that could benefit from such an approach. Police officers have a vital role to play in their communities and it goes beyond apprehension and arrest. These programs are small but important steps in that direction.