Howard County's population has doubled during the past 20 years, and the number of police calls has increased 172 percent, but the number of police officers hasn't kept pace.
As officials struggle to provide enough schools and teachers for the education system in the fast-growing county - the Robey administration's top priority - some worry that other important matters, such as police staffing, are suffering.
Howard County is not alone in this concern. Carroll and Harford counties also need more officers, officials say, though Baltimore County has recovered from recessionary lows of the past decade, adding more than 300 officers since 1992, said spokesman Bill Toohey. Anne Arundel police are below authorized strength, but there has been no public outcry for more officers, spokesman John Morris said.
Harford County Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows is worried about 40 to 50 possible retirements from his force, and he is requesting up to 20 more positions for next year, when a new northern precinct station is to open, said spokesman Lt. Edward Hopkins.
Carroll has a patchwork law enforcement team of Maryland State Police, sheriff's deputies and town officers in several municipalities, but more crime-fighters are needed, said Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning.
Despite higher pay and better pensions, the 345 sworn Howard officers are too few for the county's quarter-million people, police Chief Wayne Livesay said.
"I would like to reduce response times. I would like to respond faster," he said, noting that the volume of calls has forced 911 center dispatchers to create a five-tier priority system for calls, often delaying officer responses to routine calls by up to an hour.
"Back in the '50s, if somebody hit your cow, an officer would be there in five minutes to take a report," said James F. Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officer's Association.
"During shift changes, you don't have the maximum amount of manpower on the road, though we have adequate coverage," he said. "You can always use more patrol officers."
With more specialized units, such as the 10 officers assigned to county high schools, and the increased complexity of white-collar, computer crimes, the growing force needs more officers to keep abreast of crime trends, to track information accurately and to conduct community policing, officials say.
Last year, Livesay asked County Executive James N. Robey, his predecessor as police chief, for 40 more uniformed officers, but he got 16 - who recently began training to join the street force by June. To have twice the 184 officers authorized in 1981, Howard's police force would need 23 more sworn officers.
Livesay said that although getting 40 new officers would have been ideal, "I'm comfortable with what we got last year."
But he added, "I really would like to add to patrol."
Robey said last year's police staffing request was large because he asked the chief to ask for what he needs - "the optimum."
That doesn't mean the county is suffering from lack of protection, he said. "I don't feel we're seriously behind. I think we're doing a very good job with the resources we have," he said.
Some officers' slots are federally funded, Robey noted, offsetting, for example, the cost of the 10 officers assigned to county high schools.
"When I joined the department in 1966, there were 33 officers. Many a night shift, I was the only one on duty in the whole county, with a state police officer," Robey recalled. He is doing all the budget will allow, he said.
"We could always use more officers. We could use more zoning inspectors, but you determine what you really need to get the job done," Robey said.
No national standard
Because of sick leave, vacations, court time and training, Livesay said, he needs at least 34 officers on paper to handle the 24 police "beats" in the county that must be patrolled on each shift.
"It takes time and effort and a lot of thought to do community policing the way we want it done," said Maj. Jeff Spaulding, deputy chief for operations.
There is no recommended national staffing standard, though 1999 statistics in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports showed an average of 2.7 officers per 1,000 people in U.S. suburban jurisdictions, some of which are much larger than Howard County.
According to 1999 figures compiled by the Department of Justice, Howard County equals Montgomery County's rate of 1.3 officers per 1,000 people, and tops Harford's 1 officer per 1,000. But Howard is behind Prince George's County's 1.8 per 1,000, Anne Arundel's 1.4, and Baltimore County's 2.3. Baltimore reported having 4.4 officers per 1,000 people.
County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, also said he feels that more police officers are needed.
"I think what [Robey is] doing is prudent," Guzzone said, referring to two years of significant pay increases and a generous new pension plan proposed for next year.
"First, make sure the officers on the beat are content to stay here. The next step is to increase the force level. A bigger jump [in force size] is needed," Guzzone said.
Some observers say the chief needs more help than he is letting on. Wilbur F. "Bill" Coyle and William G. Volenick, two Ellicott City retirees who founded a group called Howard County Citizens for Public Safety, said they think the patrol force is spread too thin, especially outside Columbia.
"During shift change, you're lucky you have 12 beats covered," Coyle said, a charge vehemently denied by Livesay, who said on-duty officers cover for those changing shifts.
In addition, Livesay said, officers coming on duty who have take-home patrol cars report directly to their beats instead of to the station. Still, the chief is planning to create a new "power shift" with four officers to boost coverage for urgent calls during evening shift changes. "There's just too much of a gap," he said, adding that when the new shift begins soon, "I'll feel more comfortable."
Asking a lot
Coyle and Volenick argued in a letter to the County Council in 1999 that education affects "a small percentage of our population," while police work "affects every man, woman and child in this county."
Robey said the critics "want a lot more than is reasonably possible."
Sheldon Greenberg, a 16-year Howard police veteran who is department chairman of the Police Executive Leadership Program, a research unit for police at the Johns Hopkins University, said police staffing has little relationship to the crime rate.
Howard County's crime numbers from the first nine months of 2000, the most recent statistics available, were slightly up. Violent crime - led by more rapes and assaults but marked also by a large drop in robberies - was up 3.4 percent. Property crimes were up 1.5 percent, despite large decreases in vehicle thefts.
But Greenberg pointed out that having more officers sometimes leads to higher reported crime rates. One officer, with a random traffic stop or burglary arrest, could stumble on a prolific thief and uncover dozens of possibly unreported crimes. "If there are 50 more officers in Howard, they will generate activity," he said.