By Joe Murchison
Laurel Police Chief Russ Hamill needs your help.
Hamill said a leading crime problem in the city of Laurel is vehicle thefts. So far this year, 179 autos have been stolen, more than double the number of thefts during any other year in the past decade.
Items left in vehicles are often stolen, too, with 120 such thefts so far this year. In all of 2021, there were 192 thefts from autos.
Most of the stolen vehicles are taken by juveniles, Hamill said. “This is a trend being seen across the county and across the country.” He noted, for example, that on the day after schools opened in August, Laurel police arrested four high school-aged juveniles on auto-theft charges.
The primary way these crimes can be prevented is if citizens take better precautions, he said, adding, “Stop leaving your keys in your car when you’re gassing up. Don’t leave your car on when you run in to get a cup of coffee. When you drive around, keep your doors locked. Don’t leave your keys in your car when it’s parked in front of your house overnight.”
Laura Guenin, the department’s public information officer, added, “Don’t leave valuables visible in your car.” She has seen a citizen’s video showing “people walking up and down the street pulling on door handles. If [the door] is locked, they go to the next car.”
Hamill pointed out that buying a vehicle is a major investment for many, often second only to purchasing a home. But the impact of an auto theft goes beyond financial loss. The sense of violation can leave victims feeling fearful in their community, and the loss of their vehicle can even jeopardize their employment, he noted
Hamill said that citizen-police cooperation isn’t just important in preventing auto thefts, but is crucial in everything the department does. Citizens have to be “comfortable talking and sharing their concerns with you” for police to have a chance to prevent all types of crimes.
Hamill came to Laurel in 2019 with a lengthy resume, including 36 years with the Montgomery County Police Department, where he rose through the ranks and eventually was appointed acting chief of police. He was enrolled in a pre-retirement program at that time that required him to step down by a certain deadline, and that prevented him from applying for advancement to chief. Even as he retired, Hamill wasn’t ready to step away from policing completely.
The opening for chief in Laurel intrigued him, he said, because the department is one of the largest full-service municipal departments in the state. It became a state model as the first department in Maryland to adopt body-worn cameras for all patrol officers.
The opening “really stood out to me as an opportunity that probably wouldn’t come along too often,” Hamill said.
Noting that the department has a history of close ties with the community, he said, “But you can’t stand on your laurels. You have to move forward.” Hamill resurrected the Laurel Citizen’s Police Academy, which had been dormant for about 12 years. The academy’s classes teach citizens about police techniques and procedures.
Hamill also organized three advisory groups – one from the faith community, one from the business sector and one from the general citizenry.
Citizens are invited to air their concerns and questions at Coffee with the Cops events, and children are invited to attend a summer Cops Camp and fish with officers at Casting with Cops. During the height of the pandemic, officers frequently helped local religious congregations and organizations give out groceries during food distributions.
Hamill said this kind of community outreach harkens back to the principles of Sir Robert Peel, known as the “father of modern policing.” Peel was Great Britain’s home secretary in the early 1800s and spearheaded the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. One of his innovations was to make police into COPs — constables on patrol — who developed relationships with citizens in their neighborhoods.
Peel believed the goal of effective policing was the prevention of crime, rather than the apprehension and punishment of wrong-doers. To do this, police had to earn the public’s respect and cooperation. One of his famous principles was, “The police are the public and the public are the police.”
“Policing is tough,” Hamill said. “It’s a hard career. People get into policing to make a positive difference in the community.”
Making a positive difference has been difficult in recent years with police-citizen tensions on the rise particularly in racially-tinged situations. But Hamill likes what is happening in Laurel.
“The atmosphere in the city makes it possible to be more engaging [with the community] and make a positive difference quickly,” he said.
Unincorporated areas mirror city
Maj. Jason Fisher, commander of the Prince George’s County Police Department’s Beltsville station, which serves South Laurel and West Laurel, agrees with Laurel Police Chief Russ Hamill that vehicle crimes are a top concern.
Vehicle thefts have increased this year in these two areas. Sixty-five vehicles were stolen from Jan. 1 to Aug. 29, compared to 55 during the same period last year.
The criminals who steal vehicles fall into several categories, Fisher said. “Some of them are professionals. Some of them are juveniles. Some of them are organized juveniles.”
Fisher noted that these cases are tough to close. For the county as a whole, only 40% of vehicles stolen this year have been recovered.
“The majority of the incidents that we see are crimes of opportunity. The best way to combat crimes of opportunity is to be aware of your surroundings,” Fisher said. “Park in well-lit areas. Remove all valuables from your vehicles, including the key fob. Lock your vehicle’s doors. And never leave your vehicle running unattended.”