It’s the centerpiece of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s Community Policing Unit, a large RV trailer which tours the county, stocked with information about public safety.
It’s manned by experienced deputies eager to answer citizen’s questions. It’s a giant, physical representation of the agency’s efforts to prevent crime before it happens, and to present a friendly face to Harford County.
They call it…the McPoo.
Or rather, the MCPOO: the Mobile Crime Prevention Outreach Office.
The trailer was on hand along with the Community Policing Unit’s commander, Sgt. Kevin Thomas, at the Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy tonight. Despite its sophomoric (but pretty funny) acronym, Thomas said the MCPOO and his unit fulfill an important role as the face of the Sheriff’s Office to the everyday, law-abiding citizen.
“We’re the huggers of law enforcement,” Thomas said. “Community policing is a plan everyone needs to adopt within the agency.”
Carrying out that plan means offering a wide array of services, in a variety of places across the county. The unit oversees the dozens of neighborhood watch groups around Harford, provides home and personal safety tips, conducts free security surveys of commercial and private properties, and provides information on everything from identity theft to workplace violence to bicycle safety.
The flexibility present in the unit is reflected in the division under which it falls, the Special Operations Division. Though often thought of only as the agency’s tactical team, the division includes many units, including the K-9 squad, the scuba team, the traffic unit, the Violent Street Crimes Unit, the Community Action Response Team, and Honor Guard, among others.
The result is the Sheriff’s Office’s most flexible division, according to its commander, Captain John Bowman, a trait it encourages in its various units.
“That’s sort of the beauty of my unit,” said Thomas. “We don’t have one answer, we’re encouraged to think outside the box. The flexibility that [Bowman] talked about, we look to take advantage of.”
The MCPOO itself is an example of outside-the-box thinking. According to Thomas, the vehicle began its life as an ad-hoc FEMA trailier; that is, it was purchased by FEMA from the retail RV market to replace the stockpile of official, non-retail FEMA trailers depleted by the response to Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, as FEMA was able to swap out the retail trailers with its own units, it had a glut of retail RV trailers it needed to divest. RV retailers strongly opposed the government agency undercutting their prices by dumping their surplus trailers back onto the market, so FEMA made them available to other government and police agencies, Thomas said.
Acquired by the Sheriff’s Office to serve the Community Policing Unit, the trailer still needed to be converted from a livable space into something more suited for police work. Thomas’ answer was to contract students at Harford Technical High School to do the job. He said more than 40 students from seven different trades, including carpentry, welding, electricians and HVAC worked for an entire school year to get the trailer in shape, installing slat-board walls to hold pamphlet containers, building cabinetry and moving interior walls, and constructing countertop space.
Thomas said the trailer in its original form had a sticker price of more than $20,000. But the Sheriff’s Office spent only about $10,000, including purchase price, construction materials, and labor, to give the trailer a new life with the Community Policing Unit—and an unfortunate nickname.
Other highlights of the Citizens Police Academy class included:
–DFC Jamie Krampert of the Sheriff’s Office Gang Suppression Unit outlined the different groups active in Harford County, and some of their distinguishing features.
Contrary to what some members of the public believe, Krampert said it is not illegal simply to be a member of a gang—Maryland has no law prohibiting a person saying they’re a Blood or a Crip. But membership in those groups often means connections to activities which are illegal, he said, and those who pose as members but aren’t are usually “weeded out” by the real members of the group.
Harford County is home to localized elements of the larger Bloods and Crips organization, as well as Dead Man Inc., a predominately white prison gang which has been known to contract as muscle for the Black Guerilla Family and other prison groups. A few members of outlaw motorcycle gangs are also active. But Harford has also spawned its own home-grown gang, World’s Most Dangerous, or WMD, which got its start on Brookside Drive in Edgewood.
Krampert said the groups maintain a mostly loose structure; unlike the clear rank and organization seen in gangs in larger cities, he said in Harford County, the person in charge is “whoever is the oldest and not dead or locked up.”
There are numerous, arcane ways a person can represent for their gang, from hand signs to clothing to tattoos to quirks in writing–Bloods are known to cross out the letter “c” in written messages, a dig at the Crips. But Krampert said that many younger members of gangs, or wannabe members, find instruction on gang symbols on YouTube or other Internet sites, and often parrot them without a clear idea of what they even mean.
When trying to confirm if an individual is a member of a gang, the Sheriff’s Office unit uses a 12-point validation process, including not just their claim, but their style of dress, an implication from a confirmed gang members, and others. A person must meet three of the points before being listed in the Sheriff’s Office database as an active gang member for five years. If they have no further activity after five years, they are downgraded from an active member to an associate.
Krampert said hostility toward police occurs more often in younger gang members, who may not have been through the criminal justice before. Older members often greet officers with a sense of familiarity, he said, “the idea that, I’m doing what I have to do, and you’re doing your job.”
But there is one similarity, Krampert said, between gang members young and old. One Citizens Academy member asked whether recent campaigns such as “Stop Snitchin’” have caused gang members to stop providing information to police.
Confronted with the possibility of serious federal time, and going to a prison where they may not have so many friends, Krampert said, “Trust me…they all snitch.”
Next Week: The overview of the Special Operations Division continues with a look at the Traffic Unit and the Special Response Team.