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When Community Policing Works


When Howard County's 1993 crime statistics were recently released and a 3.4 percent drop in overall crime was reported, police officials credited the community outreach methods that have been part of department policy since James Robey became chief three years ago.

Howard, indeed, seems a jurisdiction especially well-suited to community policing. The county's size and population are relatively manageable, and the problems associated with urban pockets elsewhere in the Baltimore metropolitan area have yet to affect suburban Howard significantly. For example, the county had four homicides last year. One homicide, of course, is one too many, but the situation in Howard pales next to that of Baltimore City, which sees a homicide nearly every day.

The vast extent of the city's crime woes is one reason why community policing did not receive the most positive portrayal in David Simon's recent series in The Sun on the Baltimore police department. As the series showed, the city officers assigned to community work -- "social workers with guns," as some critics derisively refer to them -- might have had more of an impact on crime had they been used to beef up the department's depleted investigation units.

While Howard has nothing to compare to Baltimore's level of crime, police officials are fully aware that forming partnerships with community groups is just one facet of crime prevention. Chief Robey has asked the county government to fund up to 20 new police positions, asserting that the move is necessary to keep up with Howard's growing population. Until the department spent more than $1 million last December to add 39 new officers, the county had gone through three years of economic recession without any new police hires.

It speaks well of the Howard department that it handled 5,000 more calls last year than the year before and crime dropped more than 3 percent.

No police department, whether in a troubled city or a healthy suburb, can forgo the kind of unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts work that simultaneously solves previous crimes and prevents others from occurring.

At the same time, community outreach can become an effective police tool in certain jurisdictions, as Howard's experience has indicated.

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