Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Council wants to save community police officers

Looks to save nearly $2 million with a change to department’s policy for take-home cruisers

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Amid the increasingly tense deliberations over the county budget, it appears the County Council will be able to restore funding for six community policing positions for the coming fiscal year.

The county police department’s community service officers — or CSOs, one officer at each of the six districts — were put on the chopping block when County Executive Isiah Leggett called on Police Chief J. Thomas Manger to cut 24 positions from the force. Manger responded with a plan to have the CSOs reassigned to patrol positions, postponing the need for new hires.

In the two months since the proposal was made, a diverse collection of community leaders has been quietly waging a campaign to save the CSOs, calling them a bridge to communities and the face of the police department for many. CSOs play too crucial a role in crime prevention and community outreach, in part by attending numerous public forums, homeowners association meetings, parents’ nights at schools and Neighborhood Watch training sessions, they said.

Much of the push has come from three resident liaison committees — African-American, Asian American and Latino — that meet with Manger every month to hash out concerns and learn about police operations.

Eliminating the Community Service Division would ostensibly kill the liaison committees, stymieing years of work in improving the police department’s standing and relationship with the community, committee members have said.

‘‘This will kind of devastate things, especially in the African-American and Hispanic communities,” said Vernon H. Ricks Jr., a former Takoma Park City Councilman and a member of the executive committee of the Montgomery County NAACP. ‘‘When we meet with Chief Manger, he sits down and listens. If we have concerns, it starts at the top and then flows down.”

Restoring a total of 12 community outreach positions — the six CSOs and another position at each district — will cost $623,000 dollars, according to a council staff report. The report lays out about $1.85 million in police funding that the County Council wants to restore to the fiscal 2009 budget, which begins July 1.

The lion’s share of the money would be accounted for by no longer allowing officers who live outside the county to take their cruisers home, a savings of $1.75 million.

County Councilman Philip M. Andrews, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, did not need much convincing.

‘‘The officers in these positions provide a crucial link between the department and the public and often are the main link between community members, HOAs and other groups,” said Andrews (D-Dist. 2) of Gaithersburg. ‘‘A relationship has developed between the CSOs and folks in the respective district that very much needs to continue.”

Nothing is set until the budget’s May 22 deadline, but the item is a top priority on a sort of budget wish list that the council will reconcile as the budget deliberations wind down.

‘‘I expect that we will end up funding the CSOs,” said County Council President Michael J. Knapp said during an interview Friday.

Nowhere is the CSO position more vital than in Montgomery Village, where the Montgomery Village Foundation deals with issues similar to those of a 40,000-resident city but has powers more akin to an HOA.

The CSO assigned to Montgomery Village — Officer Diane Tillery of the 6th District — led a 2007 investigation into the $100,000 embezzlement of foundation money by a former employee. She also trained 17 new Neighborhood Watch programs last year alone.

The position is ‘‘absolutely a necessity for a community like ours,” said Bob Hydorn, president of the foundation’s board of directors. ‘‘The county can’t afford to pay for 20 people to come in to do what these people are doing.”

The police department’s police⁄youth activity league, a program that catalogues information about Alzheimer’s patients who might be prone to wandering away from their homes, and the Police Explorers program, which steers dozens of teens toward careers in law enforcement, fall under the Community Service Division and would also be cut.

The fate of Manger’s three liaison committees remains unsettled. At an April 24 meeting with Knapp, about 15 members of all three committees called on the council to find a way to preserve something that at least resembles the police department’s community outreach function.

‘‘What we’re concerned about is that we lose the structure,” said Roberto Juarez, of the immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland. ‘‘Then in a couple years when we have the money, we’re going to have to reinvent the wheel.”