Several years ago, Jesse Bane held a public meeting with residents of Joppa and Edgewood, who torched the then-recently-elected sheriff over the ongoing gang and violence problems in the area.
On Saturday, Bane returned to host the latest in a series of town hall meetings, and was met with a large, but far more friendly crowd.
“My first town hall was a barn-burner, all anyone wanted to talk about was gangs, the violence and the gangs,” the sheriff recalled. “Now what are we talking about? Quality of life issues.”
Those issues included concerns over illegal parking on local streets, signs advertising various businesses scattered around the area, among others. But more serious issues were also raised, including the number of deputies available to patrol Joppa and Edgewood, local drug use, and the ongoing poor public perception of the greater Edgewood area.
By the time of the meeting’s 9 a.m. start at the new Southern Precinct on Pulaski Highway, a standing room crowd of more than 100 people packed into a meeting room. An overflow crowd numbering about 50 people was shepherded into the roll call room, where they eventually heard Bane repeat the opening speech he gave to the larger crowd.
In his comments, Bane touted crime statistics released last fall, which placed the rate of the most serious crimes in Harford County at 2,173.8 per 100,000 population—the lowest recorded since the statistic was first tracked in 1975 and markedly better than the rate in neighboring Baltimore and Cecil counties.
“Some of you may be here because you think crime is out of control in your community,” Bane said. “I can assure you, that’s not true.”
However, Bane said the county fares far worse in traffic safety, currently ranked fourth worst in the state for traffic fatalities. He said the agency plans to move to a new system called the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, which would use better mapping and deployment techniques to drive down both crime and auto accident incidents.
But the new data models can’t replace uniformed personnel out on the road and, as he has at other public appearances, Bane said the Sheriff’s Office currently operates at a rate of 0.8 law enforcement officers per 1,000 people. Though that number has been called into question by his rivals, regardless of what statistical method is used, Bane said no new deputy positions have been included in the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget.
Answering a question posed by an attendee, Bane said he would want to hire 28 new corrections officers and 137 new law enforcement recruits. But the cost of putting each on duty for their first year—including training, benefits, equipment and salary—total $150,000 for a new law enforcement officer and $137,000 for a corrections officer, totaling more than $25 million.
“No complaints against the county executive and county council, they’ve been good to us,” he said. “[But] we are severely understaffed.”
Bane said the Harford County Detention Center has remained at the same staffing levels since 1998, while coping with a bevy of new problems. Among them is the emergence of what he called a “new class of addict,” the abuser of prescription drugs.
“Much of our crime is being driven by drugs,” he said. “Burglaries are being committed for drugs. More than half of the population of the Harford County Detention Center is addicted [to various substances]. It is the thing that gives us the biggest headache right now.”
He added that more than half the inmate population faces some type of mental health issue, many of whom also have an addiction problem, driving up the medical costs to treat and rehabilitate prisoners.
One citizen confronted Bane on what she called an ongoing lack of trust between members of the community, “particularly young African-American males,” and police, saying that the former group often feel harassed but that police are also putting their lives on the line every day.
“I think with youth, there’s a lack of trust from them to police, and police to them,” she said.
“Can I tell you, that’s true of [their] parents, too,” Bane said. “They treat us the same way they treat their parents.”
“There needs to be education to break down their boundaries,” the woman, who later declined to give her name, continued. “Not all of our kids are bad, or want to commit crimes. It’s the same with police, they’re not all bad.”
In both the main meeting room, and in the smaller session in the roll call room, community members said they were concerned about the ongoing bad reputation of the Edgewood area.
In response to both, Bane said that crime occurs throughout the county, but that Edgewood’s high population density results in more incidents tied to its neighborhoods. He added that a few problem areas also became crime hot spots which reflect negatively on the area as a whole.
“There are four or five communities in Edgewood, that if we could bulldoze them—well I don’t want to say that. If we could clean them up, refurbish them, that would solve a lot of problems,” he said.
But Bane reiterated the difference between that first, heated meeting with local residents, and the more sedate, positive gathering now.
“I think it’s turning around, I believe it’s getting better,” he said. “We could not have gotten this many people at a town hall meeting [then], except to ask us what we’re doing about the gang problem. More and more people in Edgewood are telling us they’re getting tired and are taking a stand.”