South county residents learn public safety strategies, solutions at summit
Promoting conversation about public safety while strengthening the relationship between law enforcement officials and the residents they protect and serve, the Prince George’s South County Home Owners Association Alliance hosted a public safety summit on March 30 at the Surratts-Clinton Library in Clinton.
The summit — which had more than 50 residents in attendance — featured opening remarks from County Councilman Mel Franklin (D), as well as updates from Sheriff Melvin High, Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski and Deputy Fire Chief Ben Barksdale.
Franklin said the summit is timely for a number of reasons as it is an opportunity to “launch some of the progress” south county has made within the last five years.
“Just five years ago, it was such a different time in the county,” said Franklin. “When I took office [in 2010], we were then on some pretty tough circumstances. We had several homicides in January of 2011 in a very short number of days. We were dealing with a [growing] public corruption scan- dal of the prior administration [led by former County Executive Jack B. Johnson]. We were also dealing with the full front of a historic economic crisis. So we were dealing with a lot of stuff at the same time.”
But thanks to the public safety leaders and agencies coming together to work with the county executive, council and the community at-large, Franklin said the county was finally able to see record lows in crimes.
“When you talk about homicides going down, when you talk about violent crimes going down, when you talk about property crimes go- ing down … we shouldn’t take any of those successes and accomplishments for granted,” he said.
As the county continues to celebrate the progress it has made, including the recent opening of the new District 7 police station, Franklin said residents must be mindful of what still needs to be done. One of the major concerns is that Prince George’s has the highest number of reported domestic violence cases than any other region in Maryland, he said.
“Even one instance of domestic violence is one too many but we still lead the state in instances,” Franklin said. “We know that we still don’t have the right intervention programs and we still don’t have enough safe places for survivors of domestic violence to go. So that’s a continuing challenge we must work on.”
Fortunately, Franklin said County Executive Rushern L. Baker (D) proposed to increase spending on domestic violence by $1 million in his budget for fiscal year 2017, an important investment Franklin believes should be spent in an effective manner.
In addition, Franklin said he is pleased to introduce a new piece of legislation seeking a second full-service shelter in south county that would provide more protection for domestic violence victims.
“That effort is being led by Still I Rise [Inc.] which is a nonprofit organization based here in south county, led by Glenda Hodges,” Franklin said. “She’s working in partnership with our sheriffs and the state’s attorney and the courts and all of those organizations who are involved in that important work. She’s also working with Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal [AME Church] to open the second domestic violence shelter here in south county.”
Another area for improvement entails getting new officers as well as civilian personnel for the District 7 police station, which is currently understaffed. Public safety accounts for nearly 60 percent of the funds allocated to the county and is a major investment that needs the community’s “eyes and ears.” As the second largest county in the state, public safety and staffing go hand-in-hand in terms of creating a better quality of life for south county residents, according to Franklin.
“When we talk about the county budget, we’re mostly talking about public safety,” Franklin said. “We fight particularly hard for staffing because we know we have a lot of area to cover. … We have to make sure we have equity in terms of the resources of the county. We pay taxes just like everyone else so we want the same services as well.”
For law enforcement leaders like High who serves on the board of directors for the county’s Economic Development Corporation, he said public safety impacts the county’s commercial tax base as well as its efforts in attracting, retaining and expanding businesses.
Public safety is a “cornerstone” because it creates a secure foundation which allows people to enjoy their communities, High said.
“I get to see and get a sense of what businesses are thinking in terms of businesses in the county and them wanting to stay here and grow here and the attraction of new businesses to our county. All of those things are very telling signs about how they see our county and [what] they’re hearing about us,” he said.
Having been county sheriff for the last five years, High is responsible for leading, managing and commanding more than 300 deputies and civilians in safety and crime prevention efforts. He said public safety officials’ primary responsibility is to “serve as the enforcement arms of our courts.”
One of the ways in which High carries out his responsibilities is by working with the Prince George’s court system, the largest in Maryland. The courts, he said, are a critical function of public safety because they are a place where people can “settle their differences in a peaceful way.”
“Prince George’s County has the busiest court system in the State of Maryland. We have a number of high risk trials where we have people being prosecuted for multiple murders and other serious crimes,” High said. “We’re trying to make sure that doesn’t get out of hand and that that process can be orderly and safe.”
When it comes to helping the county become a safer and better place, High said warrants are a major factor — about 25,000 new warrants are issued from the court system every year. Part of the solution is to focus on apprehending the people responsible for committing violent crimes, bringing them to justice and most importantly, removing them from the streets, he said.
“We have to work hard to find people and make those arrests,” High said.
In terms of domestic violence, High said the sheriff’s office received about 15,000 protective orders in total for the county last year, as well as 5,000 domestic-related calls from District 3 alone. Although those numbers are “significant,” High said that’s a good thing because it means women and men “are getting the message that there’s help available.”
The Maryland Network Against Domestic Vio- lence (MNADV) created the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) in 2005 as an innovative model and strategy to prevent domestic homicides and serious injuries. It provides an easy and effective method for law enforcement and other community professionals — including health care providers, clergy members, case workers and court personnel — to identify victims of domestic violence who are at the highest risk of being seriously injured or killed by their intimate partners, and immediately connect them to a local domestic violence service program, according to the MNADV website.
MNADV also noted that the LAP is initiated when a trained officer arrives at the scene of a domestic call, or when a community professional believes a victim of abuse may be in danger, and assesses the victim’s situation. If there is any doubt about the risk of lethality a victim may be facing, the officer or community professional will ask the victim to answer a series of 11 evidence-based questions known as the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders. If the victim’s response to the questions indicates an increased risk for homicide, a phone call will be placed to a local 24-hour domestic violence hotline.
“As a result of those assessments, [our officers] made about 250 arrests on the scene. When those arrests were not made, they referred the [accused individual] to our in-house advocate [Special Advocate Assistance] and they reach back out to those victims and in some cases, the abuser, to see what resources [are needed to try and resolve the situation],” said High.
Stawinski said there will always be a need for policing and it takes “a special kind of person to do this job.” The challenge with policing in a democratic society is finding opportunities to engage people at an appropriate place and time, as well as getting people to think differently about how to strengthen police-community relations, he said.
However, Stawinski said the solution starts with residents simply talking to their police officers.
“It means so much to them when you offer a hand, when you offer a word of encouragement and you’re the first one to speak,” Stawinski said. “You’re going to find that these people have a depth of compassion that is out of this world. … That’s what people need to know about us.”