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Howard County Police Recruiting Program Attracts Officers From Other Police Departments

About one-fifth of officers now with the Howard County Police Department worked with other police departments before applying with this county's "lateral testing" program.

MARRIOTTSVILLE – Jason Luckenbaugh was a patrolman with the smaller Annapolis Police Department who was hoping to move forward in his career. Stephanie Wall was a police officer with the larger Baltimore City Police Department who was looking to do the same.

Each has now been with the Howard County Police Department for years – Luckenbaugh is now a sergeant, Wall a corporal, and both are products of a program that brings in experienced police from other jurisdictions.

Earlier this month, the latest batch of officers from other departments, now aspiring to join the Howard County police force, traveled to a sizable training complex in Marriottsville for testing and interviews.

And for police department officials who are looking to replenish their ranks, these “lateral testing” days allow them to find experienced officers who can get to work sooner than rookie recruits.

“When the lateral officers are hired by Howard County, it’s a five week-academy,” said Lt. Robert Wagner, commander of the county police department’s education and training division. “What we’re doing in those five weeks is teaching them the Howard County way. Then, for roughly six weeks, they go out into field training, where they’re riding with an experienced officer. 

“When we do a recruit class – which is basically a civilian who’s hired – you’re looking at 32 weeks in the academy, and then 14 weeks of field training. You’re really not getting an officer for a year, as opposed to the lateral officer who has experience, who can be on the street in a matter of weeks.”

About one in every five Howard County police officers currently on the force came in via lateral testing – 89 out of 441 total officers, according to department spokeswoman Elizabeth Schroen. Police Chief William McMahon is one of them, having joined the department in 1986 after two years as an officer with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police.

The department holds lateral testing when there are enough open positions. Right now there are about 10 vacancies, though the department has not yet determined whether those positions the number to be filled by experienced officers and the number by entry-level officers.

The lateral testing includes a written test, followed by a questionnaire, a polygraph and a background check, Wagner said.

Luckenbaugh came to Howard County in 2001 after three-and-a-half years with the Annapolis Police Department.

“It was a smaller agency, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to change into different units,” he said. Since joining Howard County, “I’ve been in a variety of different positions. I’m a sergeant now, supervising [criminal investigations] … with the background and experience that I’ve developed over the last 10 years.”

Wall had been with the Baltimore City Police Department for five years before joining the Howard County Police Department in 2004.

“This is where I’m from,” Wall said. “I wanted to serve the department for the county in which I lived. And it’s a premier organization.”

Wall, who held the rank of police officer when she started with Howard County, is now the administrative corporal for the Southern District.

“I’ve held a couple different positions with the agency that probably wouldn’t have been afforded to me in Baltimore City – where I learned a lot from the people I worked with. But I came from a large agency that you could easily get lost in.”

Even with their prior experience, Luckenbaugh and Wall both said they needed to adjust to what it's like to work for the Howard County Police Department.

“It was just like starting a new job again. I didn’t know anybody here. It was a development process,” Luckenbaugh said. “I went from a smaller agency that does things a certain way to another agency that does things totally different. Even though the laws are the same, you have so many types of ways to do paperwork, types of ways to investigate crimes.

“I lateraled with a couple of people who had been in Annapolis with me. There were some who were able to take a hold of it and transition well, and some who took a little time to make that transition,” he said.

And Wall soon learned that the “10 codes” – the numbers police use while communicating over their radios – were different. The code in Baltimore for “sufficient units on scene” means something completely different in Howard County where it translates to “person with a handgun.”

Another officer helped her get accustomed to doing reports for drunk-driving arrests – a crime that she had not handled as much while working in Baltimore.

The police department has several measures in place to make the transition easier. Police officers who came to the department through the lateral program in the past will come in to speak with recent hires about what to expect.

Also, the facility in Marriottsville has several buildings – including detailed, realistic mock-ups of a bank, a bar, a hotel, a real estate office, townhouses and a warehouse – where officers can train for real-life situations.

“We will put them through scenarios here and then make them write a report,” Wagner said. “That way they understand how we do things before they go out on the road. We do report writing a different way. Our policies and procedures are different. 

“Sometimes we get a lateral, and this is not for them, and some people go back to their agencies. But the majority of the laterals that we’ve had over the years stay – and they do very well.”

Wall, in a previous position with the Howard County Police Department as a community resource officer, had worked with Columbia businesses to deal with problems with graffiti in certain areas of town, according to Sherry Llewellyn, a department spokeswoman.

And officers' contributions aren’t limited to combating crime, Llewellyn said.

Wall has also worked on a project that brings Christmas gifts to disadvantaged children. Luckenbaugh, meanwhile, works with organizing and running an annual charity golf tournament in honor of Cpl. Scott Wheeler, who died in 2007 while working a traffic enforcement detail. 

“When we get a lateral from another department, we really don’t know what their future here holds,” Llewellyn said. “But as evidenced by the people, they really are able to make a significant difference in the department over time.”

The Howard County Police Department will hold an open house and recruiting event Saturday, Feb. 26, from 9 a.m. to noon at the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center, 2200 Scott Wheeler Drive, Marriottsville.

There will be information on job opportunities for entry-level police officers, lateral police officers, 911 dispatchers, police cadets, civilians, volunteers and interns. A written test for officer candidates will be conducted at 1 p.m.

The open house will include displays of police equipment, a K9 demonstration, a question-and-answer session, and a tour of the training facility.

More information is available by clicking here.

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