On the Beat
Frederick's New Police Chief Faces a Changing Criminal Landscape
It’s a crisp, beautiful late morning in Downtown Frederick and the city’s police chief takes to the street, as he is known to do a few times a week. Hoofing from his office in the Frederick County Courthouse, he makes his way down Court Street to Carroll Creek Linear Park. “It’s nice just to get out of the office,” he quips.
But Chief Thomas Ledwell’s flatfoot travels are more than just a break from the administrative rigor that can dominate his position—it’s about being a visible presence, both for his department and the greater community. It gives him an up-close look at some of the city’s fluid criminal activity and— probably more importantly—it gives the citizens a chance to see the chief on the job. “I think I am wearing out these shoes,” he says.
And that means taking strolls into streets and alleys that aren’t exactly high-traffic areas, as well. Pointing up Court Street toward West All Saints Street, he mentions recent visits to neighborhoods in the south side of the city. “I still think like a cop,” he says, “so I want to be where the police officers should be, which isn’t always along the main drag.”
On a Chamber of Commerce morning, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil location amid the city’s tourism core is the same stretch of brick and pavement that has become a focal point of apprehensive Downtown merchants, residents and visitors, not to mention anxious public officials. Several high-profile violent crimes since early 2012 have tarnished the area’s reputation for serenity and safety.
In response, the Police Department has stepped up patrols in the Carroll Creek area, rotating in officers from other beats. So far, the results have been positive. “It’s been quiet down here,” Ledwell says.
But crime—just like “life,” as instructed in the movie Jurassic Park—finds a way. Downtown anxiety was again raised to high alert the afternoon of Feb. 5, when three masked men entered the venerable Colonial Jewelers on the Square Corner. Ordering employees and shoppers to the floor, the robbers discharged pepper spray before smashing a glass case containing Rolexes and making off with nearly $200,000 worth of watches.
That brazen, daylight hit was followed on March 13 by a robbery of the SunTrust Bank branch on Rosemont Avenue. The buzz of activity following the heist—a high-speed chase through parts of the city and county and the overhead whoosh of a helicopter searching for the robbers—once again sent ripples through Downtown, as some businesses shuttered their doors.
“I think I am wearing out these shoes.”
Statistics show that serious crime in Frederick has been on the rise. The FBI’s category of “Part I” offenses—aggravated assault, rape, murder, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft—increased 8.7 percent in the city last year. (Officials say an increase in aggravated assaults and motor vehicle thefts led the way.) But the Police Department had been on something of a winning streak since 2008—the last time Part I crime increased over the previous year—so expecting crime to go down every year might have been ambitious.
There are demographic changes taking place in Frederick, too. During the past two decades, the city’s population has grown steadily—from 52,000 to 62,000—while becoming much more diverse: The Hispanic population has skyrocketed 287 percent since 1992.
Ledwell says the patterns of crime have shifted over the years; the open-air drug markets associated with the former public housing developments in the 1980s and ’90s have been replaced by a more-sophisticated, underground narcotics criminal element. And while he doesn’t perceive gang violence as widespread, he does acknowledge that the occasional eruption of turf violence is a concern.
A changing world means a changing way to fight crime, or better yet, to prevent it, Ledwell says. One of his goals as chief is to increase the use of “data-driven policing,” crunching crime statistics into tangible, realtime information that officers can use on the street to pinpoint and even predict criminal activity.
For example, Ledwell notes recent activity in the Baker Park area where a cat burglar was breaking into homes at night; data derived from the burglaries—location, time, methods and other information—were translated into reports that enabled officers to apprehend a suspect before he got the chance to break into his next home. “It’s easier to catch people doing pattern crimes because they keep going back to the cookie jar,” he says.
“We are constantly prioritizing and deploying resources.”
Ledwell likens the weapon of data-driven policing to giving his officers the kind of statistical advantage a black-jack cheat seeks when noting how many face cards are left in a deck. “I kind of look at it like counting cards,” he says. He also sees it as a supplement to investigative and patrol methods that have long proved effective. “We are not replacing the good, old-fashioned police work we do on a daily basis,” he says.
Data-driven policing also allows the department to assign officers in a more efficient manner, and to do so from day to day, rather than waiting weeks or months for new crime statistics, Ledwell says. “We are constantly prioritizing and deploying resources.”
A New Chief In Town
A 20-year veteran of the department, Ledwell was appointed chief in January, but the 44-yearold Lewistown resident had already been serving as acting chief since November of last year, when Chief Kim Dine resigned from the force after being appointed chief of the U.S. Capitol Police.
Mayor Randy McClement says Ledwell’s experience in all areas of the department as well as his leadership experience—he had been a member of the chief ’s command staff for 13 years—made him such a natural choice for the job that even one recruiter questioned why the city was considering a national search for the position when the top candidate was already in the department. “One of them asked me, ‘Mayor, why are you going outside?’” McClement recalls.
“It’s easier to catch people doing pattern crimes…they keep going back to the cookie jar.”
In fact, the city saved thousands of dollars by not conducting a national search and only looked at in-house candidates, which included Ledwell and Capt. Kevin Grubb. (Grubb later retired from the department after he was not chosen for the chief ’s position.) That goes against the belief that a national search will draw a stronger pool of candidates, and attract a police chief from outside the department who can start an administration without any baggage from previous assignments or relationships. But McClement says he is pleased with the results, and the early response to Ledwell’s administration in the community and department have been very positive. “I haven’t had anyone come up to me personally and say, ‘Bad move.’” McClement says.
Ledwell replaced a local establishment in Dine, whose tenure leading the department lasted 10 years and—perhaps more impressively—spanned three mayoral administrations, no small task for an appointed position that is so visible and so exposed to the city’s political machinations.
“We are accessible, responsive and we really care.”
Dine was an extroverted type—straight out of Central Casting for the role of “police desk sergeant”—who often spoke his mind and could fill a room with his presence. His courthouse office was packed with old-school police knickknacks and photographs that made the space feel more like a home den than a government cave.
Ledwell is more measured in his approach, almost academic in choosing his words and actions. Even his balding pate, which he jokes about, makes him seem more like a college professor than a police chief. (He has a bachelor’s degree in behavioral and social sciences from University of Maryland and a master’s degree in business administration from Frostburg State University.) His office, adorned with just a few photos, diplomas and awards, and lots of bare wall, can be best described as Institutional Revival in style.
But where Dine and Ledwell might differ in personal style, they are both believers in a community-style of police work that focuses the work of the officers on the street, meeting residents and business owners to promote longterm relationships to prevent and reduce crime. In fact, it was the community-policing focus— along with the data-driven emphasis—that made Ledwell a top candidate in McClement’s eyes from the start.
That’s why you will see officers at community meetings and other events, making contacts with residents and business owners before a problem erupts. And it isn’t just the citizens who see the positive outcomes, Ledwell says. “[The officers] also learn the benefits of positive interaction with the community.”
Ledwell speaks of the three sides of the “problem triangle”—suspect, location and victim. Historically, police departments have focused on the suspect side of the triangle, making arrests after the crime is committed. But Ledwell says the convergence of community- and data-driven policing can work on the other two sides … even if that means fewer arrests. “Which, to me, is a good thing because it means we are affecting the other two sides of the triangle,” he says.
Which also explains why he routinely makes his way out of the office to visit Downtown and other neighborhoods. Visibility is key for him personally and for the department. “I think it shows the community we are accessible, responsive and we really care,” he says.
And armed with a spreadsheet.