Brien Poffenberger: Crime is an economic development issue


Last week, the Chamber of Commerce hosted Hagerstown’s new police chief, Mark Holtzman, for an overview of how policing trends in the city affect business. 

The chief’s presentation made clear that Hagerstown has few of the crime problems that plague larger metropolitan areas, and yet his department is using some of the same crime-fighting techniques found in big cities. 

Further, his department understands the impact that even a few crimes can have on our community’s image and how that directly affects companies here. The chief’s presentation, and the reaction from those in the room, underscored one inescapable fact: Crime is an economic development issue.

Social scientists have long understood crime’s connection to economic health, and that the police force is the first line of defense. Suggesting that even minor anti-social behavior can lead to more serious crime, the “broken window theory” explains how a derelict building signals a breakdown in community standards. 

Lower standards invite law breakers and prompt anti-social behavior among otherwise law abiding residents.  The perception leads to more broken windows, more serious vandalism and eventually more serious crimes. 

To a community’s business climate, crime is an economic depressant, and again, businesses turn to the police.  Crime drives away both customers and the businesses that serve them.

As businesses leave, their departure tears at the community’s economic fabric.  With fewer businesses, more customers leave, and vacant offices and storefronts vie to attract increasingly fewer commercial tenants. 

Rents fall, and landlords attract undercapitalized entrepreneurs whose threadbare image discourages other businesses from locating nearby.  This downward spiral can strip communities of essential products and services and fill the void with a marketplace of illegal activity.

Chief Holtzman assured us the Hagerstown is not on this path.  We are not however —his presentation made clear — without our challenges. With his 24 years of police work in Hagerstown, Holtzman understands the community he serves and the tools at his disposal. During his tenure at the police department, he has served as a detective, patrol sergeant, director of the Narcotics Task Force, a patrol lieutenant, and the operations captain. 

Beyond Washington County, Holtzman is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy for Law Enforcement Executives and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice and public administration. His career focus on community policing and intelligence-led policing serves Hagerstown well and gives him the experience and the skills to counter both crime and the negative image it creates. 

With all of his experience and education, the chief stressed to the chamber the range of tactics, both high tech and low, that the police department deploys to roll back crime. At the human level, community policing is all about relationships. Effective officers know their neighborhoods and the people in them.  Trusted by local residents, police become part of the community.  They know — like the residents know — what is going on, block-by-block, street-by-street.  

Using a high-tech version of pins on a map, the police department has computerized the tedious job of identifying patterns and making connections. Information about individual crimes goes into the system and out comes an interactive map, rich with data and analysis. 

Armed with this tool, officers can see otherwise invisible patterns. They can look more deeply into networks of illegal activity and link suspects from one area to clusters of crime in another.

Hagerstown’s geography and demographics insulates it from some problems but makes it more susceptible to others. Chief Holtzman helped explain some of those problems, how they affect local businesses, and how the city’s police department is working to solve them.  

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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