Community gets view of how Harford law enforcement collaborates on public safety, crime solving


To improve cooperation among the various law enforcement agencies serving Harford County, the county Sheriff’s Office holds weekly CompStat meetings, involving its personnel and representatives of allied agencies, at the Southern Precinct station in Edgewood.

CompStat, short for compare statistics, is a nationwide law enforcement management system developed in the past 25 years in which weekly data on neighborhood crimes, incident reports, complaints and other statistics are analyzed by computer program and rigorously reviewed by police.

The goal is to “actually look at what’s happening in our community on a weekly basis, communicate with one another, work together,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler explained.

Members of the Harford County community recently got a sense how multiple law enforcement and criminal justice system agencies, backed by the CompStat system, cooperate to solve crimes and keep local residents safe.

An inaugural community CompStat meeting, hosted by the the Sheriff’s Office, was held last Wednesday at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company’s main firehouse on South Hickory Avenue. About 30 people attended.

Gahler, who was elected sheriff in 2014 and is seeking re-election in November, said the Sheriff’s Office has wanted to hold a public Compstat meeting for about four years, and was finally able to do so last Wednesday.

“It’s another attempt by our office to be open and transparent with the communities we serve,” he said.

Those around the table included Gahler’s command staff, several Sheriff’s Office civilian crime analysts, plus representatives of the Maryland State Police, Maryland Natural Resources Police, the Bel Air Police Department, the Havre de Grace Police Department and Parole & Probation. Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Kreis also attended.

Major crime decline

Police officials presented their latest data on major crimes, opioid-related overdoses and traffic accidents and fatalities.

There has been a 15.7 percent decrease in major crimes, compared to the same time last year, Maj. William Davis, commander of the Sheriff’s Office police operations bureau and moderator of the evening’s presentation, said.

There have been four homicides in 2018, as of the end of August, and there were four at the same time last year. Rapes have increased, from 24 to 30, but robberies have decreased from 68 to 40, aggravated assaults from 161 to 139, burglaries from 267 to 179, larceny theft from 1,081 to 955 and motor vehicle theft from 49 to 48, according to Uniform Crime Report data.

Drug overdoses, most of them related to heroin and other opioids, remain “one of the biggest issues in the county,” as well as the nation, according to Davis.

The number of opioid-related overdoses has dropped slightly, compared to the same time in 2017, according to Capt. Michael Crabbs, the new commander of the Harford County Narcotics Task Force.

There have been 54 fatal overdoses and 244 non-fatals reported to law enforcement this year, for 300 total, as of Sept. 2. That compares to 61 fatalities and 253 non-fatal overdoses as of the same time in 2017, according to Crabbs.

That means an 8.2 percent drop in fatal overdoses and a 3.5 percent drop in non-fatals, according to Sheriff’s Office data.

The number of opioid-related overdoses has spiked in recent years — the total fatalities increased by 200 percent over two years, with 27 in 2015 compared to 81 in 2017, according to Sheriff’s Office data.

There were 101 deaths in Harford County in 2017 from overdoses on all drugs and alcohol, and there were 30 fatal drug and alcohol overdoses in the first quarter of 2018, according to Joe Ryan, manager of the county’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Ryan cited data from the state medical examiner’s office.

There were 11 overdose deaths in Harford in 2000, according to Ryan.

“It’s a problem that’s creeping in our county and all counties across the country,” Ryan said.

Gahler said the declining trends reported by Crabbs are “the first positive sign” he has seen in in the heroin fight during his four-year term. He gave great credit to collaboration among municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement.

“Thank you for that little piece of good news,” he said.

Traffic enforcement

Police have been working since late 2017 to reduce vehicle crashes with targeted enforcement in areas known for a large number of crashes.

“It’s a tall order, with more vehicles on the road and the county growing,” Lt. Tim Mullin, commander of the Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack, said.

The barrack commander has worked to narrow down where most crashes are happening in Harford and targeted enforcement and driver education to a 16-mile area including Route 1 between Route 543 and the Baltimore County line, Route 24 between Ring Factory Road and Route 7 and Route 924 between Plumtree Road and Route 24.

“Within that 16 miles of roadway, nearly 25 percent of the crashes that we investigated in 2017 occurred in that small area,” Mullin said.

There has been a 7 percent reduction in crashes in the target areas as of Aug. 1, according to State Police data.

The county’s Traffic Safety Task Force, a combination of municipal, county and state police, also conducts regular traffic enforcement efforts, as well as DUI checkpoints.

There have been seven fatal crashes countywide this year as of Sept. 1, compared to 13 fatals for the same period in 2017, Capt. Donald Gividen, commander of special operations for the Sheriff’s Office, said.

Sheriff’s Office deputies have conducted 15,094 traffic stops so far this year, which has generated 21,268 violations, according to data. Deputies issued 15,481 warnings, compared to 4,909 citations and 878 repair orders, Gividen said.

Davis noted three times as many warnings as citations have been issued.

“The ultimate goal is just to change driver behavior,” Gividen said.

Crime updates

Police also provided updates on individual incidents that happened in recent weeks and months, such as an armed robbery of a Harford Bank branch in Bel Air last Wednesday morning.

“We’ve had numerous phone calls on possible leads,” Detective Sgt. Henry Marchesani, of the Bel Air Police, said. No arrest had been made as of Monday, however.

The Bel Air Police are leading the investigation. Officers from allied agencies in the area, such as the Sheriff’s Office, State Police and Natural Resources Police, responded when the robbery was reported. Evidence recovered by police is being processed by the Sheriff’s Office forensic unit, according to Marchesani.

Still images of the suspect, taken from surveillance cameras, were shown on a screen.

“If anybody in the back thinks they recognize this guy, please call the Bel Air Police Department,” Davis told audience members.

Gahler praised Bel Air officers for their “quick thinking” to request that schools near the bank be locked down, considering Wednesday was only the second day of the 2018-2019 school year for Harford County Public Schools.

“I’ve heard some good feedback about that,” he said.

Vehicle chase

Capt. Peter Georgiades, commander of the Sheriff’s Office Southern Precinct in Edgewood, recounted the Aug. 23 chase of a vehicle that had been reported stolen and was detected by a deputy participating in a saturation patrol and using an electronic license plate reader. The deputy followed the vehicle and alerted other units in the area.

Multiple agencies were involved as the suspects drove north on Route 24, entered Bel Air and crashed near the IHOP restaurant in Bel Air Plaza. The four juvenile suspects got out of the SUV and ran, but officers quickly caught them, Georgiades said.

Investigators found the keys to a pickup truck they suspected the youths planned to steal at a later time, as well as credit cards and other items taken in prior thefts from vehicles. The evidence allowed police to close three auto theft cases in Belcamp, according to Georgiades. He said thefts from vehicles have dropped in that area since the quartet was arrested.

The SUV involved in the chase was stolen using its key, according to Georgiades.

The vehicle was reported stolen Aug. 21, Mullin said.

“The victim told troopers that she leaves her key fob in the car because she loses it,” Mullin said.

Thefts from vehicles

Sheriff’s Office officials urged people to lock their vehicles, not leave valuables in their cars and to keep an eye on their valuables when in public.

“Yes, Harford County is a very safe community, but leaving your vehicles unlocked is just inviting people to come take the things inside your cars,” Davis said.

He said thieves taking items from unlocked vehicles is “our biggest issue right now.”

Capt. Tracy Penman, commander of the Northern Precinct in Jarrettsville, warned about ongoing vehicle break-ins that are consistent with prior incidents tied to members of the Felony Lane Gang, a network of people who travel the East Coast and target vehicles driven by women making quick stops at stores or day-care centers, or park before walking or running on a trail.

The thieves smash windows, steal checkbooks, drivers’ licenses and credit cards, use the credit cards to make purchases and try to cash the checks at banks, according to Penman.

“You have to be really careful in what you’re doing, because they are watching and your credit card information will end up all over the country,” Penman said.

Officials showed a video of two women stealing the wallet of a woman sitting behind them in a busy Panera Bread restaurant — the women move a table and chairs right behind the victim, who is eating and talking with a person across from her, and neither notice as the suspect leans back and takes the victim’s wallet from her pocketbook.

The thefts happened at Panera restaurants in Abingdon and Bel Air South on Aug. 23. The two suspects used the stolen cards to purchase items at nearby stores such as a GameStop video game store.

Using social media

The Sheriff’s Office is seeking the suspects, and the same video is posted on the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

Cristie Hopkins, director of media and public relations for the Sheriff’s Office, said the agency gets “really good feedback” about crimes through its social media pages.

“It just really does help us get more eyes on these crimes and allow people to see what’s happening and hopefully do some prevention,” Hopkins said.

Davis stressed people cannot report an emergency through Facebook or Twitter, and Hopkins said people should call 911 if they need help.

The sheriff spent about 15 minutes at the end of the roughly 90-minute meeting answering audience questions. He heard concerns about drug education for elementary and middle school students, thefts from vehicles and scam phone calls.

Hopkins, the Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said officials would review the feedback from Wednesday’s event, which was also streamed live via Facebook, and could host another community Compstat based on the level of interest.

“I felt that it was very informative,” Whiteford resident Diana Nalls said. “It brought attention to me about what is happening in my county.”

Her 17-year-old son, Jared Seling, a senior at North Harford High School, is a member of the Sheriff’s Office youth Explorer Post 6600.

Seling and five other members of his post were recognized Wednesday for bringing home a first-place trophy from the 2018 National Law Enforcement Exploring Conference, held at Purdue University in Indiana in July. The Harford post, the first Maryland post to win first place at a national conference, earned their win in the white-collar crime category.

The Harford post was one of about 450 teams and 2,000 Explorers at the conference post Lt. Heather King said.

“It was really cool,” the 16-year-old North Harford High School junior said.

“We’re developing tomorrow’s public safety leaders, and they standing right here in front of you,” Gahler told the audience.

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