For Howard County Officer 1st Class Gabriel Arias, being a good cop boils down to two words: making connections.

By reaching out to the owner of the corner store, an elderly apartment dweller worried about intruders or an immigrant family, Arias keeps in touch with the people who live and work on the beat he patrols on Columbia's western side.

"You make the contacts. This job is all about talking to people and communicating," said Arias, 39. "If things happen on my beat, I want to know about them. It's almost personal. These are my people."

Going beyond the call of duty in his commitment to the job has earned Arias both state and local recognition this year, as well as the respect of his peers and the community. In June, he was named the Howard County 1998 Officer of the Year, and on Monday, he received the 1998 Exceptional Police Performance Award from the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association at its conference in Ocean City. He also was named 1998 Officer of the Year by the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Corp., a group of active and retired police officers.

Those who know and work with Arias say it is his ability to connect with people as well as his extensive investigative skills that make him a top-notch officer. In addition to working as a patrol officer and investigator, he has served during his six-year career as a field training officer, hostage negotiator and community facilitator.

"He's the kind of guy who's constantly out there hustling, talking to the community and getting to know them," said Sgt. Gerry Frischkorn, who was Arias's supervisor during 1998 and who submitted his nomination for officer of the year. "If we had a squad full of Gabe Ariases, we would all be out of a job. There would be no crime."

Arias gets involved in the community, often on his own time, "way above what your average patrol officer does, which makes it extraordinary, because most guys don't take the time to get involved to that extent," Frischkorn said.

Arias often works with community leaders on issues that are affecting the quality of life for residents, police officials say. In Harper's Choice, he has served on a committee dedicated to improving the village's image by taking steps to enhance safety. In Wilde Lake, he has run educational programs to teach senior citizens how to avoid becoming crime victims and has spoken at community meetings to address concerns about crime.

"He is just a delightful person and very down-to-earth and well-received by the seniors," said Wilde Lake Village Manager Bernice Kish. "We use him as a resource when we need that type of community link. He's always very responsive and goes out of his way to help."

A Costa Rican native who came to the United States with his family at age 15, Arias has found that his Spanish language skills and insight into Hispanic culture serve as valuable tools in crime investigation.

Fellow officers often request his services as a translator. On occasion, he has been used as a decoy to help catch muggers preying on Hispanic workers. Hispanics tend to be targeted for crime because they are reluctant to report incidents, usually out of a fear of police, Arias said.

"I probably have the dubious honor of being the only officer in Howard County mugged by two 14-year-old girls," he said, recalling an incident when he was approached while posing as a drunk Hispanic worker on his way home on payday. "They were big 14-year-old girls."

In addition to solving crime, Arias also uses his language skills and cultural knowledge to help immigrants adjust to living in the county. At Community Homes, a nonprofit organization that runs five housing developments for people with limited incomes, Arias has worked with officials to reduce crime problems as well as to help recent immigrants and their children get involved in after-school programs, according to Carole MacPhee, executive director of Columbia Housing Corp., which runs Community Homes.

MacPhee said Arias's ability to speak Spanish has helped him to build a rapport with immigrant families, enabling him to settle problems before they escalate.

"Gabe's kind of an outstanding guy," she said. "He doesn't sit back on his laurels. He'll get out and work with us."

Arias, who lives in Burtonsville, also works frequently with the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that offers assistance to immigrants and refugees. Arias contacts the organization when officers need an interpreter of other foreign languages and often speaks to its clients on issues of public safety, rights of immigrants and domestic violence, said bilingual outreach coordinator Walter Rodriguez.

Although others praise him for his dedication, Arias says that working with organizations like Community Homes is a fundamental part of patrolling his beat.

"We were seeking each other because we needed each other, and it worked out really well," he said. "I claim no specific credit for this. It's just that if you work a beat, you look for contacts to find out what the concerns are. Let's work on it together--that's my idea of community policing."

Arias said he believes that communication is the key to successful policing, whether he's dealing with community leaders or trying to subdue a suspect. He prides himself on being able to talk violent offenders into submitting to handcuffs without using force.

"You get a lot more from people with a little honey than with vinegar and a baton," he said.