By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – Assaults on police officers in Maryland have fallen sharply since 1998, according to a recently released FBI report, a drop that officers attributed to better training and equipment.
But the report said Maryland still had the fifth-highest rate of police assaults in the nation in 2001, when 22 percent of all law enforcement officers in the state reported being assaulted while on duty.
The report said 4,527 officers were assaulted on duty in 1998, or 39 percent of the total police force, compared to 2,146 officers who were assaulted in 2001.
The changes reflect the complex picture of law enforcement and crime trends in Maryland, where police union officials said an increased focus on community-oriented policing exposes officers to greater threats, but more training helps to keep them safe.
“We get out there and confront the criminals more,” said Baltimore Police Detective Gary McLhinney, the president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police. “If you sit in your radio car for eight hours, chances of getting hurt are pretty slim.”
McLhinney said that more foot-patrols and an increased police presence in high-crime neighborhoods is good because it means police are doing their jobs. But with that increased police presence comes greater risk, he said.
He said that Baltimore police hope to reduce that risk and continue reducing assaults on police with training, such as the new training program being offered to all city officers.
“The rookies and the guys with 30 years are going through it,” said McLhinney, whose union chapter is the biggest in the state.
The training is a “very intensive arrest and control training and self- defense training” program created by a former Navy SEAL that McLhinney hopes will help make officers safer on the streets.
Baltimore County Police Sgt. Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, also credits the increased availability of tools such as pepper spray and guns that fire non-lethal bean-bag bullets.
These tools give officers “the ability to avoid a physical confrontation,” which can save lives, said Weston, head of the state’s second-largest FOP chapter. Those tools are more necessary now, he said, as criminals have grown more aggressive.
“There definitely is a group of criminals that certainly will do whatever they can to avoid conviction or arrest,” Weston said. “There is a large number of people out there who are very desperate and that creates dangers . . . You try to do everything you can to minimize those ”
Despite the drop in assaults reported by the FBI, which only provided statewide data, McLhinney said he believes criminals on Baltimore streets are more aggressive now than they have been in the past.
“It used to be (criminals) ran, tried to get away,” McLhinney said. “Now they stay. They want to do harm, particularly these younger drug dealers.”
Michael Canning, executive director of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, agreed that there has been a change in the perception of law enforcement among certain segments of the population.
With more emphasis in the media on mistakes made by officers — such as incidents of police brutality — there is a growing resentment and distrust between some communities and the police who serve them, Canning said.
“I do think that the issue of law enforcement officers being assaulted is a societal issue,” Canning said.
But for McLhinney and other police, safety is still the top priority.
“It’s real simple, we’re going to protect ourselves. Our main goal is to go home safe at night,” McLhinney said.