Oakland Mills High School and the Howard County police are about to enter into a studiously casual relationship, a first for the county, designed to make police officers look less like enforcers and more like human beings in the eyes of teenagers.
The volunteer program, which is a demonstration project for the county school system, is starting at the same time that a coalition of county clergy is launching an ombudsman service, at the request of Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney. That service is aimed at young people who have complaints against the police.
Chaney asked the interfaith group, Clergy for Social Justice, to "deal with perceptions held by some young people concerning police actions and the misinformation that can frequently spread in the community."
At the same time, volunteers are being sought among the two dozen police officers assigned to patrol Columbia to participate in the life of Oakland Mills High, on and off duty, in and out of uniform.
Officers can assist coaches, lecture to classes, attend school functions, even eat in the cafeteria, said Sgt. Louis Haslup, administrator of the police youth division.
Oakland Mills Principal Sue Ann Tabler said officers will be invited to help teach health education or social studies, "or maybe share something about their own career or advocation."
"I was also hoping that officers in their time off may be coming here to basketball games or to watch soccer matches and that they'll bring their families here and be part of our community," she said.
The police liaison with the school is Officer Lawrence Freer, 39, a 14-year member of the force who is studying for a master's degree in education. "I love the classroom," said Freer, a part-time basketball coach and former substitute teacher. "To me, the classroom is theater. It's very rewarding to be with kids -- they're people too. I don't forget that I was 15 once."
Haslup said the department has been interested for some time in establishing a program for high school involvement. For the past year the department has participated in an anti-drug program for elementary schools called DARE.
Oakland Mills is in many ways a microcosm of Columbia, with a population reflecting a range of races, incomes and ethnic backgrounds.
But the fabric of communication between some young people and police officers has been particularly fragile in that eastern Columbia community since May, when the body of Oakland Mills graduate Carl Jonathan Bowie was found at the school's baseball backstop.
Since then, said County Council member C. Vernon Gray, who represents Columbia, more than a half-dozen complaints about police harassment of youths have been brought to him by parents.
The Bowie case "really brought to the attention of the communty that there were currents in that community that needed to be addressed," said Patti Vierkant, spokeswoman for the school system.
Earlier in the year, Jon Bowie and his brother, Mickey, had filed brutality complaints against three Howard officers who arrested them at a party in January. A grand jury recently found that there was insufficient evidence to indict the officers. It was to meet again yesterday to consider the facts of Jon Bowie's death, which was initially described by police as a suicide.
Bowie friends and supporters say soured feelings between youths and police have long been a fact of life in Columbia. They say that some officers make a point of following young people in their cars, challenging them at fast-food restaurants and shopping malls.
Rabbi Martin Siegel said Clergy for Social Justice intends to provide young people with a "comfortable place" other than the police internal affairs division to bring complaints.
The coalition does not intend to become a "judicial agency looking to see who is right and who is wrong," Siegel said. "We are more of a healing agency than a blaming agency."