South county res­i­dents learn pub­lic safety strate­gies, so­lu­tions at sum­mit

The Enquire-Gazette - - Front Page - By JOHNATHON CLINKSCALES jclinkscales@somd­news.com

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.”

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