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County police to decentralize traffic units, localize control

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore County police officials will restructure the department's two traffic units, dispersing 64 officers among eight precincts as part of a continuing effort to give more responsibility and resources to local commanders.

Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan has ordered the change, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. He described the new setup as "community-based traffic enforcement."

But the move has been criticized by an internal police department report that was commissioned by Sheridan and by the head of the police union. The report said the change could create an unwieldy bureaucracy and overburden precinct commanders.

The report also contends that precinct headquarters, which are mostly older buildings where space is at a premium, have too many special units. Since becoming chief in 1996, Sheridan has added five special units in the precincts.

"Precinct commanders will be taking on additional workload that may overwhelm an already taxed system," says the report, prepared in June by Capt. Don Roby of the special services section.

Sheridan said placing traffic officers under the supervision of precinct captains will give the captains more control over traffic issues in their districts and allow traffic and patrol officers to work more closely together.

But he acknowledges the move could involve a "major capital expense."

The traffic division will be the largest department ever to be decentralized, according to the internal police report obtained by The Sun.

Traffic management has three components. The Eastern division is based in White Marsh, and the Western division is in Woodlawn. Officers in those divisions handle the most serious daytime traffic accidents, set up speeding checkpoints, arrange funeral details and manage traffic at major events.

The Traffic Management Unit, based at police headquarters in Towson, handles overnight traffic accidents and oversees cameras set up at intersections to catch motorists who run red lights. The unit also supervises the work of the drunken driving task force and school crossing guards.

Although the details have not been worked out, Sheridan said the 64 officers assigned to Eastern and Western divisions would be reassigned to the precincts. The Traffic Management Unit, with 31 officers, would remain at police headquarters.

The officers assigned to the Eastern and Western divisions are among the busiest in the department. Fatal motor vehicle accidents accounted for 70 deaths in the county last year, compared to 30 homicides for the same period.

Since beginning his tenure as police chief four years ago, Sheridan has used federal funds to create units to deal with specific issues. The county was among the first in the state to place officers in high schools to provide added security. Sheridan also created the Business Patrol Initiative, a group of officers assigned to build rapport with business owners along major commercial corridors with high crime rates.

Those and other special units are supervised by precinct captains. But the Eastern and Western traffic divisions and officers assigned to the Community Action Team - a unit created in 1997 to combat sudden crime trends - were supervised by a major at the White Marsh and Woodlawn offices.

Last month, the county's 56 CAT officers were placed under the supervision of the precinct captains. In January, the same thing will happen to officers in the two traffic divisions.

The idea is to give precinct captains control of as many resources as possible, because they are held accountable for controlling crime in their districts. The concept has been used in New York City.

Adding traffic to the mix "gives that precinct captain a new dynamic," Sheridan said.

The chief said officers will be able to respond more quickly to accidents and captains will have the ability to directly answer requests for speeding checkpoints.

But other issues need to be resolved. Sheridan and precinct captains acknowledge that nearly all the precincts are squeezed for space. Sgt. Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 4, said he is most worried about the Wilkens, Cockeysville and Essex precincts.

Weston said it could take the department years to add on to the precinct buildings, leaving officers to work in crowded settings in the meantime.

Sheridan said the department is looking at expanding and adding parking spaces at nearly every precinct. He did not have cost estimates.

Capt. Evan Cohen, commander of the Cockeysville precinct, where rapid development has created traffic headaches, said he views the addition of traffic officers as "a resource for us to use."

Traffic officers "are attending roll calls with patrol officers [who] now have a face they can put to them," Cohen said.

However, the internal report warns that the traffic officers may not be able to effectively handle all the traffic duties in their precinct. That could mean a heavier workload for patrol officers.

"This will lead to reduced time or insufficient time that the precinct [patrol officer] will be available to respond to crime trends on their individual posts," the report says.

Sheridan said that and other issues can be worked out.

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