Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Neighborhood watches end in budget plan

Public safety included in belt tightening

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Montgomery County public safety officials say they will have to make do with less because of the County Executive Isiah Leggett’s budget cuts, which include the elimination of a police academy class and transferring 22 crime prevention officers to other positions.

‘‘If I go back to patrol, there’s no more neighborhood watches. That’s it. We’re the only ones trained for that. If anything, with the economy the way it is, we need more eyes and ears out there, and not less,” said Officer Diane Tillery, the community services officer for the 6th District, who has organized Neighborhood Watch programs in Montgomery Village.

County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said he has heard concerns about the proposed cuts. ‘‘But we’re going to make the best of this. We’ll see what happens,” he said.

While Leggett (D) proposed reorganizing positions at the police and fire department, he did not want them to come at the expense of public safety.

‘‘We will do what is necessary — what we need to do — to keep us safe,” he said at the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce annual Public Safety Awards ceremony Friday.

Elimination of the County Services Division will save the county $672,580.

Among the cuts could be the county police department’s Latino outreach officer, which has been a crucial ‘‘buffer” amid widespread immigrant distrust of police, said Henry Montes, co-chair of Leggett’s Latin American Advisory Committee.

‘‘Obviously, I think it’s a bad move,” Montes said when told the position could be cut. ‘‘... That’s how you maintain your connection with what the realities are in the community. If you don’t have that, what you have are officers that are out there doing their jobs but they’re looking at the issues from an enforcement point of view all the time. It’s the old saying, if you only have a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”

Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the proposed changes would be reviewed in detail.

‘‘The bottom line is the County Council makes the final decision anyway,” Andrews said. ‘‘I’d have to compare what [community service officers] are doing now with what they’d do elsewhere. Generally it’s important to have a significant patrol presence and directly responding to calls and I’ll be interested to hear what the county executive and the police chief propose in terms of proper allocation of personnel.”

Staff Writers Sebastian Montes and Janel Davis contributed to this article.