It's nothing as drastic as having an entire force of RoboCops, but the Baltimore City Police Department is getting ready for the 21st century.
Last night, approximately 150 people attended a meeting at War Memorial Plaza downtown to hear Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods and some experts discuss community policing, the future direction of the city's police department.
Under this concept, police officers will become part of neighborhoods. And through combining basics with new ideas, officers hope to be able to prevent crime with input from the community and area businesses.
The program's basics include having officers walk the beats as they did in past decades to develop personal contacts.
New ideas include having police refer people to the proper social agency that can take care of their problems before their situations explode.
For example, police officers might get repeated calls to a noisy bar. They respond and try and resolve the situation, but the problem recurs. When this continues, the police officer becomes tied up in calls to the bar when he or she could be dealing with something more serious. If police can refer neighbors to an agency, the problem may cease and won't have to return, proponents said.
"Over the next several years, we are going to transform the city police department into a community-oriented department from top to bottom," Woods said.
In the meantime, the department will conduct a five-month self-analysis to determine its strengths and weaknesses, so a Silver Spring consulting firm, Gaffigan & Associates, can develop a five-year plan to implement community policing in Baltimore.
The public will be asked to complete a questionnaire about what's wrong with the police department.
The Board of Estimates approved an $84,000 contract yesterday with Gaffigan & Associates.
In the coming months, three executive meetings are to be held to determine what the police values are and to review initial findings of the assessment. Then, in the fall a plan will be developed.
"This is not going to happen overnight," Woods said.
Meanwhile, citizens will be informed of any progress through letters to the city's 450 neighborhood organizations, for example.
Currently, Woods said, there's a $1.6 million budget to pay for additional foot patrol officers July 1.
This program inspires Woods.
"My vision is to see every neighborhood work with police officers that they know personally," Woods said following the meeting.
The only drawback, Woods said, is the uncertainty whether citizens will be willing to pay for the new anti-crime measure. He couldn't provide a cost for community policing or the amount of staff that may be needed.
"The cost is a factor," Woods admitted, "but we're talking about public safety."
In New York, 6,300 men were added even in its fiscal woes, the consultants said.
Community policing is rapidly spreading across the country, said Robert Wasserman, one of the consultants. It's already a reality in New York City, Richmond, Va., and Houston.
In Richmond, community policing has helped rid neighborhoods of loiterers, said Russell L. Boxley, a consultant.
There, officers were able to cut the number of loiterers by sitting in lawn chairs and policing the area, Boxley said.
Steve Gaffigan, president of the consulting firm, himself a former police officer, said in other cities, drug-trafficking has been slashed, too.
Community policing, which provides for strong accountability for the police department, isn't "a quick-fix solution," Boxley said, however.
Gaffigan said, "This is an evolution in every sense of the word."
In the 1980s, 911 in many instance prevented police officers from fighting crime, because they were running from one call to the next. Many were non-emergency calls and the police really didn't solve anything, Wasserman said.
Under this concept, it is believed police will be free to handle the serious calls.
Last night, William "Billy" Richardson, 68, seemed thrilled about the new idea.
"It's a good idea," Richardson said. "If you get foot patrol back . . . it would be better.
"Police officers sitting in cars are OK. I'm from the old days when police officers walked the streets," he said, adding that today when perpetrators spot police cars they hide and resurface after they are gone.
Ernest Pulliam, 71, president of Daley Park Neighborhood Association, said the idea can only improve what's working now. "It can't be any worse, so it's got to help," he said.
But a police agent had reservations. "It sounds good," said Kenneth M. Greene outside the War Memorial, "but the community seldom gets involved with police.
"They're still at a point, where the majority are taught not to trust police," he said. "Trust has to be built and that takes a long time."