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First impressions of HPD's new chief

September 30, 1999

Self-confident, enthusiastic and careful not to promise any specific results too early. Those are my first impressions of new Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur R. Smith, until recently the commander of the Baltimore City Police Department's Northeast District.

Based on interviews The Herald-Mail's Dan Kulin did with co-workers, police union officials and neighborhood association members in Baltimore, it seems that Smith is the real deal - the "policeman's policeman" that Mayor Robert Bruchey II wanted, but without that "nobody understands what we do but us" mentality that can separate police from the communities they serve.

To break down those barriers, to give every organization and neighborhood an officer they can call their own, Smith promised that it won't just be the community affairs officers who will attend citizens' group meetings. He'll be there, too, he said, to listen to complaints and follow up personally. If a group cites a problem with people hanging on the street corner at midnight, Smith said he would check it out himself, and if a call comes in while he's there, he'll call in and work as back-up for it.

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"I like to be on the street as much as possible," he said.

In the hour or so he spent with Herald-Mail reporters and editors, he delivered lots of information, including the following nuggets:

- Crack cocaine prices are high in Hagerstown - a vial that would be $7 in Baltimore is $25 in Hagerstown - but Smith said that it will be easier to restrict the drug trade here because many of the customers are from out of town. In his Baltimore district, Smith said he faced the same problem as drug buyers from out of the area entered his Baltimore sector on Interstate 95.

"The toughest neighborhoods (in which to break up the drug trade) are where everybody you arrest lives within two blocks of the corner where the dealing takes place, where they all grew up together and have a certain loyalty to each other," he said.

- A big part of curbing crime in any community, whether it's drugs or prostitution, is for law-abiding citizens to go to court to see how cases are handled, Smith said. So many things that could be done as part of the sentencing process - ordering drug tests for prostitutes, making it a condition of their probation to stay away from the area where they were arrested - ordinarily aren't done, Smith said.

- In Baltimore, Smith instituted something called "sector management," which basically tied officers to specific neighborhoods, so that people got to know and trust "their officer." It reduced crime significantly there, Smith said, and was expanded to other parts of the city. But he hastened to add that he won't know whether it will work in Hagerstown until he does more study of the city.

- Police officers need positive motivation; to be successful they must believe that they're working for the greater good, Smith said. They need tools and technology to do that job, he said, but they also need a pat on the back from time to time.

- Despite calls for more officers from some local police units - the city's Street Crimes Unit and the county's Narcotics Task Force - Smith said he won't take any proposal for additional manpower to the council until he looks at how forces are being used now.

- Asked about the council's past concerns about overtime, Smith said that using overtime can have some benefits as opposed to making new hires, because every new person hired is also eligible for the city-funded benefits. Smith, who has a degree in economics, said that good organizations don't staff "to peak demand."

However, he said, "You can always use more officers."

- Smith said he will return his phone calls, saying that of the 145,000 residents in his Baltimore district, there were only about two he wouldn't take calls from any longer. That will be something he requires his officers to do as well - "return the phone calls and do what you say you're going to do."

The 49-year-old Smith said he left the Baltimore department because it was the "opportune time to make a move." He said he had his choice of a couple of cities where they was basically no crime, but didn't feel he was ready for that. Instead, he picked Hagerstown because it was a place where he wanted his family to live.

"I want to make the city the kind of place that can attract new businesses and new residents. I want to make it look good," Smith said.

That's what all law-abiding citizens want, but on Smith's behalf I would ask them not to start whining if there are no immediate improvements, since he doesn't actually start work until Nov. 1. This guy seems ready to roll up his sleeves, and at this point his only request seems to be for enough time to get the lay of the land and figure out who does what.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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