Protective orders and a long commute

Comment

January 23, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

Most of Carroll County's workers travel to other counties to do their jobs. There hasn't been much change in that situation in recent years. Carroll's still a bedroom suburb, overlaid on a shrinking farming community.

So how long is your commute? Fifteen minutes, an hour each way? What's the longest time you would drive to work and still live in Carroll County?

How about seven hours roundtrip to Salisbury?

David Barcroft of Hampstead faces that prospect, and he has gone to court to stop his employer, the Maryland State Police, from ordering his transfer.

He is a state trooper, has been for 23 years, and worked at the state headquarters in Pikesville.

As one of his duties, Lieutenant Barcroft was in charge of implementing a statewide system of computer listings of civil protective orders, which are restraining orders to prevent domestic violence.

The database of these separation orders, issued by the courts, is used by police to screen handgun sales and to prohibit their purchase by persons served with these orders.

It was supposedly a simple addition to the police data system already maintained by the state and federal governments.

Then Richard W. Spicknall bought a handgun in a College Park pawnshop last September and allegedly shot to death his two small children. Mr. Spicknall had received a protective order from Howard County that should have prevented him from buying a gun, under federal law. But the order was not entered in the state computer system.

That's when the finger-pointing began fast and furious. Subsequent reports on the protective order system showed up to an 80 percent error rate for those orders entered in the database. Only half the court-issued orders had been entered, the delay in entering data was sometimes 16 weeks.

The state police admitted no wrong in the affair. Therefore, the Lieutenant Barcroft could not be openly faulted.

Instead, he found himself transferred this month to the Salisbury barracks. His newly created post, unique in the state police organization, includes such matters as public school safety on the Eastern Shore.

Claiming the transfer was punitive, the trooper filed for a court injunction. A reprieve from Baltimore County Circuit Court keeps him close to home at least until the court hearing next month.

Backed by the Maryland Troopers Association in his suit, Lieutenant Barcroft refers questions to his lawyer and declines to talk about the matter. His position is outlined in the court filing.

Whether Lieutenant Barcroft is a scapegoat for the embarrassment suffered by MSP or whether his performance was deficient, there's little doubt that his involuntary transfer reflects official displeasure. No matter that other reassignments were made about the same time.

Historically, the MSP has not been the most benevolent of employers.

The agency doggedly retaliated against a Medevac emergency medical technician who dared to push for family and medical leave (under federal law), hounding him with demands for psychiatric evaluation and refusing to reinstate him.

He won court decisions and monetary judgments, but chose to retire last year, while the state appeals in federal court.

One thing is clear: MSP was to be the lead agency in seeing that protective orders were properly entered by local agencies into the computer and monitoring the system's operations.

Col. David B. Mitchell, police superintendent, said the absence of civil protective orders from the gun-check system posed "a significant threat to public safety" when he applied in 1997 for state and federal funds to train the 31 sheriffs and local police departments responsible for logging in the orders.

MSP got $132,000 in grants to visit county sheriff, police and court offices throughout Maryland and train data entry clerks. State police reported spending $31,000 of the money but was not able to train the local personnel in any county. The agency instead printed a manual and mailed it to the sheriffs. Mr. Barcroft has explained that his requests for auditors to do the job were denied because of the agency's overwhelming focus on Y2K computer compliance.

Last month, MSP stated in a task force report on protective orders that it was responsible only for orders that had been properly entered by local agencies, not for backlogs and errors.

There's certainly lots of blame to go around, from the judges and court clerks who fail to fill out completely the legal orders, to the sheriffs' clerks who don't enter them promptly or properly, to the MSP that did not fulfill its obligation to train local agencies despite a federally mandated deadline of November 1998. Because of the public uproar, agencies say they are concentrating on the problem. But the training of clerks to enter the orders is slow, clerical staff is inadequate in most sheriff offices to handle more than 17,000 orders a year.

Meanwhile, David Barcroft makes his daily drive from Hampstead to a temporary assignment in Annapolis, while the Baltimore County Circuit Court decides on his new commute.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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