Troopers' plight grabs media limelight

October 05, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

They have become the symbol of Maryland's devastating budget reductions: State troopers, in their crisp tan uniforms, marching silently to the State House, shrouding their badges in funereal black, gazing down in grim judgment at lawmakers from the legislative galleries.

Yet: of the 1,766 state workers fired this week as Gov. William Donald Schaefer struggled with a $450 million budget deficit, only 83 were troopers.

And cuts in state programs -- such as welfare benefits, preschool classes, addiction counseling and rape-crisis centers -- will leave tens of thousands of Marylanders without help they've come to depend on.

With so many other people out of work and so many of the needy cut off from state help, how did the troopers -- 83 of 1,765 sworn officers -- manage to win such public attention?

Advocates of the poor -- who are quick to say they wish the troopers no ill -- concede they're bewildered.

"I've got to admit I'm shocked," said Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth. "The other cuts are so draconian."

"I haven't seen a homeless person on the front page," said Steven Tuttle, director of Our Daily Bread, a downtown Baltimore soup kitchen that serves 650 meals daily. "I think we've got our priorities turned around somewhere. I feel bad for the troopers. They have families. But they'll get by. Where will our guests go?"

"I'm just wondering: Maybe there is a segment of society that doesn't care about people who are the most vulnerable," said Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which is losing 700 workers and an array of programs for the needy.

The troopers know they've caught the public's eye, and they're grateful.

"I would say people are responding to us more than anyone," said Lt. William Bernard, a 19-year state police veteran. "We're one thing -- public safety -- that everybody benefits from at one time or another. We just have good public support, and we're glad we do."

The public, fed a daily diet of crime news, seems to feel a loyalty to the officers.

L And the troopers have a ready lobbying edge: their uniforms.

When they gather as they did Wednesday to march 12 abreast to the State House, the sight is formidable.

Yesterday, the troopers standing on the State House steps were probably matched in number by people protesting other cuts. But those demonstrators, dressed in street clothes and carrying homemade signs, could not equal the visual force of the uniformed troopers.

Ms. Leviton, who lobbies in Annapolis for more help for poor children, said the public identifies far more easily with the middle-class troopers than with the homeless.

"Everyone believes, 'I could be like the trooper. He's like my neighbor.' [But with] the poor, people think, 'That could never happen to me.' "

Far from identifying with the poor, most people view them as a public problem.

"They're largely unseen until people drive through those areas of the city where most people don't regularly drive," said Richard J. Dowling, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "And they're unheard at all levels of government, at all levels of society. "

State troopers can organize to march on the State House. But "it's difficult to get people who live on the economic edge to come before government and advocate for themselves," Mr. Dowling said. "They have neither the time nor the inclination nor the ability to do so."

The Rev. William Black, executive director of Lutheran Social Services, said that the media has made it easy for people to identify with the troopers. They've been interviewed on television and in the newspapers all week long.

"I know exactly how many troopers are being cut," Mr. Black said. "I've seen the families interviewed. I know the details. But I don't know the details of the cuts affecting the elderly and poor. I'm still learning about it."

"What's going to happen to these people?" asked Steven Tuttle of Our Daily Bread. "Are they going to be on the street? Are there going to be more homeless on the streets than pedestrians?"

But advocates for the poor say that the public doesn't see that as a worry. A cut in police protection, however, is a concern -- particularly in rural areas, where residents rely on state troopers in the way city dwellers look to the local police force.

Yesterday, a lawn sign on Kent Island marked the state police layoffs with a sarcastic message: "Maryland Welcomes All Drug Dealers."

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