BERLIN – Talk of crime, recruitment and citizen involvement highlighted a community policing forum hosted last week by the Worcester County NAACP.
Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli, Ocean Pines Police Chief David Massey, Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing, Pocomoke City Police Lt. Brian Craven and Snow Hill Police Chief Andy McGee shared insight and answered questions at a Worcester County NAACP forum Aug. 15. Though the audience was small, with fewer than a dozen people in attendance, the law enforcement officials were eager to interact with members of the public.
“We are here to serve you,” Crisafulli said.
Crisafulli said community policing was a critical piece of law enforcement, as was partnering with other agencies. He said he’d recently formed an executive team made up of the local municipalities’ police chiefs. They’ll meet quarterly to go over any issues in their communities.
“When we sit down and put our minds together we feel we will provide a better product to every citizen in Worcester County,” he said. “We have a very strong partnership.”
Massey said the different parts of Worcester County illustrated the importance of community policing. Ocean City, he pointed out, has vastly different crimes than the more residential community of Ocean Pines does. He said that when officers know their communities and the residents who live in them, it provides them with a starting point when it comes to solving crimes.
Massey, who’s spent more than 40 years in law enforcement, also talked about the changes he’s seen in the profession.
“In my long tenure as a police chief, I’ve seen thousands of police officers — young, old and indifferent,” he said. “What I found was today’s police officer is better educated, better trained, better equipped, but is not as good with human relations skills. Why? Because my generation was face to face communication.”
He said that when he became a cop, there weren’t cellphones or computers.
“We have challenges today in law enforcement and community policing,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is relearning what face to face communication is about—looking someone in the eye, talking to them with dignity and respect—which everyone in this world deserves.”
McGee agreed that communicating with the public was more and more difficult. He cited the fact that more and more young people got their news through social media rather than newspapers.
“How many of us watch the six o’clock news?” he said. “No one trusts the news anymore. It’s all slighted one way or the other. People believe what they read. A lot of stuff what you’re hearing on the television is fake news or the social media is twisting it in a respect. Law enforcement as a whole has to figure out how to get the message out.”
He said his agency had created a Facebook page to communicate with the public.
“That gets out a lot of good information because we control it,” he said. “I think all of us here at this table can say a lot of our press releases when we send it to the press, sometimes isn’t what we release. They will put their spin on it.”
He also stressed the importance of law enforcement officers knowing their communities.
“People want to talk face to face,” McGee said. “They don’t want to talk to a machine. They don’t want to talk into a camera, they want to talk face to face to be able to read your facial expressions, they want to know you’re being honest with them.”
Downing agreed. He said that even if an issue wasn’t a big one for police, if community members felt it needed to be addressed, law enforcement should address it.
“We can’t slight those things,” he said. “We have to make sure we address their concerns as they’re actually spoken.”
He suggested that agencies take advantage of public speaking engagements as well.
“If we have an opportunity to have a captive audience, we can talk to them about the issues at heart,” he said. “Talking to them we can say things that we need help with. Again, if you see something say something. More crimes are not being solved by police they’re solved by us. I think that’s an important thing, to make sure everybody understands that us and that we’re all working together.”
In Pocomoke, Craven said his department promoted foot patrols and bicycle officers. Officers also stop in at the schools and chat with students.
“Just getting out in the community and having the officers speak to people in the community seems to help a lot,” he said.
Crisafulli’s office recently formed a “Community Action Team.” The team is made up of deputies who will visit various communities and knock on doors just to meet people and provide them with information about the sheriff’s office.
“That’s critical, to introduce yourself to someone,” Crisafulli said. “It’s just amazing the information you get by asking some questions so I’m imploring all of my deputies to get out of the vehicle.”
He said the newest generation of officers did “have vinegar in their veins” and needed to work harder on relationships.
“Part of keeping the community safe is enforcement but I’m encouraging my personnel to get off the highways a little more and start getting into the communities,” he said. “Getting out of the car, introducing yourself to the citizens, giving them a business card, having those conversations. We will better be able to serve you once we get to know you and know what your core issues are.”
When asked what their biggest challenges were, the law enforcement leaders present at last week’s forum agreed they needed more citizen involvement. In Ocean Pines, Massey said his department stayed busy with property crime. He said that when residents saw a suspicious individual or a questionable situation, they needed to advise police of it right then, not the following day.
“We need citizen involvement,” he said. “If you think you should call the police call the police. You might think you’re bothering us but you’re not. That’s what we’re here for. We’re public servants.”
Downing said he and his officers tried to work closely with the community all the time so that when there was a crime, folks would be comfortable contacting the police about it.
“We have to go ahead and start the communication when there’s not an issue, when there’s no problem,” he said. “We can go ahead and do that then when times are tough it’s a lot easier to have a lot of communication, have the trust.”
Crisafulli agreed and said he wanted to get rid of the element of fear that sometimes kept citizens from reporting a crime.
“We should not be feared we should be looked at as a resource in the community,” he said.
Another challenge cited by Crisafulli and his peers was recruiting qualified officers. McGee said that individuals getting out of the military used to become police officers.
“Now the military’s keeping all the good ones,” he said. “You’re not getting experienced military vets. They’re staying in for 20 years and getting that retirement check. Locally, it’s very difficult to hire kids because of drug use. That’s one of the number one disqualifiers. Number two normally is domestic violence.”
He said the greatest resource local law enforcement agencies had was Ocean City’s seasonal officer program. He pointed out that many local officers started there.
“They’re going to get the life experience condensed in about three months and experience things they would never experience in the local police department in such a fast amount of time,” he said.
Massey expressed frustration with the fact that many candidates he considered promising were disqualified because of prior transgressions.
“You can’t make such an exclusive club to be a police officer that we exclude 80 percent of the population,” he said. “For instance, the new state laws about possession of marijuana, it’s a civil offense now. We still have a three-year prohibition that we can’t hire anybody who’s used marijuana even though in the community the kids are using it more and more. The problem is we don’t even allow someone with one blemish. There’s not too many kids, myself included, that didn’t get caught for something that may not be illegal when they were younger.”
He said he believed the current regulations for officers were too restrictive.
“We won’t allow a child who’s made a mistake and corrected that mistake to come back and be a police officer,” Massey said. “I think that’s wrong. I think that we need to look at the people that we’re trying to recruit. Is it true that someone who’s never done anything, never had any life experience, is going to be a good police officer? I would suggest that some people who have had life experience are probably the best police officers. That’s the challenge. The public wants police to be squeaky clean but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be a good police officer. It’s a challenge.”
Crisafulli acknowledged that the number of people applying for positions in law enforcement had dwindled. He said he’s going to have staff visit local colleges and schools to try to recruit officers.
“This is not just a local problem,” he said. “This is a nationwide problem with all law enforcement agencies. There’s different factors. Maybe they’re looking at the world and what’s going on and saying that’s not for me.”