Hampstead, Police Chief Ken Meekins is quietly working to modernize the small town's law enforcement agency.
Meekins, who came to the job after more than 23 years with the Baltimore County police, is confident that by this time next year, his force of three officers will grow to five, a police-dog unit will be added and the Police Department will be housed in new, spacious headquarters on South Main Street.
"That will take the town well into the first quarter of the next century, meeting community needs and providing room for growth," he said.
It's been quite an undertaking for Meekins, 44, who became police chief two years ago when former Chief Kenneth Russell 62, recieved an "it's-time-for-a-change" dismissal from the mayor and Town Council.
Meekins was well prepared for the position, having served a similar role as commander of the community outreach and investigative services units at the Towson Precinct. And as a town resident, he was familiar with Hampstead.
He inherited a police department crammed into quarters in Town Hall, a block off Main Street - a site that is less visible and accessible than he would like. Despite the tight quarters, increasing his three-man staff and adding computers were greater priorities.
With plans in place to achieve those objectives, the purchase of property for a new headquarters is under way and a design is completed, he said. The building and renovation will cost $500,000 to $600,000.
Renovation of a two-story brick building at Shiloh Avenue and South Main Street - formerly housing Roy's Clock Shop and. before that, First National Bank - could begin this summer along with the construction of a one-story addition.
At the Police Department's present headquarters, operations are crammed into four small rooms. Records, property and evidence are jammed into a closet about the size of a king-size bed and the interview and holding room is smaller.
When unruly prisoners are arrested and brought in for questioning, officers must handcuff them to an eye bolt secured in a beam behind a Sheetrock wall, which shows signs oh many patching attempts.
The new headquarters will Provide two holding rooms for juveniles - separated by sight and sound from two adult holding areas -- a meeting room, a conference room, locker and showers area, squad room, break room, space for evidence, property and storage, and an out-door kennel for a cross-trained drug-sniffing and People-tracking dog.
The department has applied for a $38.000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention for the dog. The grant would cover training of the dog and handler, veterinaty expenses, equipment, dog food and a vehicle to transport the canine.
Town Council support
The Town Council has been supportive, after addressing insurance concerns, Meekins said.
The ideal patrol dog would have a big nose and no teeth," Meekins said with a grin, citing the obvious public relations value of having an even-tempered dog that could be used to visit schools or festivals.
The town Council has committed $5,000 in matching funds to add the K-9 unit and a $500 donation has come from the town of Manchester and the Lions Club, he said.
"We're looking for other businesses and community organizations to help out," he said.
Spread of drugs
The impetus for getting the K-9 unit is the spread of drugs in the county.
"Taneytown, Sykesville, Westminster and the state police have dogs, but we're the only municipality with a high school within our boundaries," Meekins said.
A program involving county schools, state police, the state's attorney and local law enforcement agencies has used dogs to scan ears for drugs at high schools, and "having our own dog would be a valuable deterrent," he said.
Besides these projects, Meekins has brought his agency into the computer age and received preliminary approval for a federal grant that will enable him to hire two more officers.
The grant will provide 75 percent of salary and benefits for three years for the new hires, he said.
One of the hires will be Clint Thorn, a Hampstead resident who is enrolled at the Baltimore County police training academy and expected to graduate May 28, he said.
One of the first things Meekins did when he was hired was form the Hampstead Police Advisory Committee, composed of representatives from the Town Council, Hampstead Business Association and homeowners associations, and the North Carroll High School principal.
"We hear the complaints and the requests and try to act accordingly." Meekins said.
"Having an advisory committee allows us to let citizens know our limitations," he said.
Meckins said an officer can't operate radar at one end of town in response to a traffic complaint and be somewhere else at the same time to address another complaint.
By knowing what the complaints are, Meekins said, his officers can stagger duties.
"It's not brain surgery, it's just a matter of being responsive to the needs of the community in which most of us live." he said.