Terry Newsome became aware of the need for better citizen cooperation with the police about two years ago when she peered out the window of her home just west of here to see someone trying to break into a neighbor's house. She phoned the Howard County police, but recalls that she was disturbed when a lone officer arrived to handle the potentially dangerous assignment minutes later.
"They told me on the phone to keep an eye on him until the backup came," she said. "I realized then they couldn't do it alone."
Soon after, Newsome was meeting regularly with the officers patrolling her neighborhood, exchanging reports of criminal or suspicious activity in the area as part of the department's Community Liaison Program, a citizens action campaign that Howard police officials credit with a sharp reduction in the serious crime rate since the program's beginnings in 1980. The key feature of the program, which won a Governor's Annual Crime Prevention Award last year for its effectiveness, is an attempt to bring the benefits of the "cop on the beat" to Howard's mix of sparsely populated farmlands and rapidly developing suburbs.
"There are neighborhood watch programs throughout Maryland," said Pat Sill, coordinator of Maryland Crime Watch, a state crime prevention agency. "What makes Howard unique is the use of the patrol officers themselves to make the contacts with the citizens. It's much more of a network than elsewhere."
The program began in the spring of 1980, when two Howard County officers attending the National Crime Prevention Institute in Louisville, Ky., brought back ideas on the trend toward organizing neighborhoods to help in law enforcement. But in setting up its program, Howard took a turn from the normal practice of having neighborhood leaders report to a central community liaison department and instead assigned them to the officers patrolling the area.
Steve Keller, of the police community assistance section, said he spends about three nights a week organizing neighborhoods and picking residents to be contacts. The liaisons recruit block captains who serve as conduits for information between the police and a network of thousands of Howard County homes, Keller said.
In the first full year of the program, reports of suspicious activity increased 17 percent, Sill said. Police crime statistics indicate dramatic results, particularly in holding down burglaries. While the county's population has increased by more than 11 percent since 1980, to 130,000, burglaries have dropped by more than a third, from a high of 1,700 in 1980 to 500 in the first six months of this year, police said.
In one Ellicott City case, a burglary suspect was arrested within a block of the residence because a liaison reported the license and description of the unfamiliar vehicle.
Even when there is no specific crime in the area, officers visit their contact at least once a month for reports of strangers frequenting the neighborhood or places teen-agers are gathering, Keller said. Patrolmen then tell their contacts the activity reported in the area, give descriptions of people to watch for and offer tips on making homes more secure. This information is passed on through newsletters and meetings.
"When you know them as a person, it makes dealing with them a lot easier, and you're more aware of the kinds of things they need," said Newsome, president of an 18-member board overseeing the program.
"Some officers originally couldn't see the merit of visiting the liaison for no reason when they could be out patrolling," she said. "But as cases are closed because of community assistance, it makes a believer out of them."
"The main criticism we've had is that it's just public relations, and in some ways it is," Keller said. "It has to be. To be effective, we have to have good relations with the community."