In search of a chief

Expansion: The little town of Perryville thinks it might be big enough to start its own police force.

March 03, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

PERRYVILLE -- Help wanted: Must be certified to carry a gun, must have 10 years' experience in law enforcement. Responsibilities include establishing an entirely new police department.

In this quiet Cecil County town, where lawlessness is best measured by the number of speeding tickets the state troopers write, officials are pricing police-package Crown Victorias and advertising for a chief. They're taking steps toward starting a police force Perryville can call its own -- calculating the costs and the potential benefits to civic self-esteem.

"I've had people say to me, `What is it about our town that we don't have a police department?' says Perryville Mayor Steven F. Pearson. "If a citizen can see a car going up the road that says `Perryville Police Department,' that adds to the feeling that it's a complete community."

And it could add to the citizenry's sense of security. For more than two decades, most of the cruisers patrolling Perryville streets have been painted in the colors of the Maryland State Police. While Pearson says the contracted "resident" troopers have largely met the town's needs, he wonders whether the growing town would be better off with more direct control of its officers.

Especially, he says, if the town saves money in the long run. Town officials, who could make the decision to form their own force Tuesday night, estimate a new police department could cost $325,000 to $350,000 annually. State police protection with similar manpower would cost about $360,000, Pearson said.

In weighing a move from the state police resident trooper program, Perryville joins the ranks of Maryland municipalities rethinking their law enforcement strategies. During the past 15 years, several towns across the state have left the state police program to form their own departments or contract with county agencies.

And some towns have gone the other way: disbanding their forces to contract with counties or the state.

These shifts underscore the challenges small Maryland towns face in finding the right law enforcement fit.

If anything, some towns are too quick to assume that a local police force is a better police force, says Sheldon F. Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Emotionally, people generally believe they get a higher level of service, a greater commitment to service, and political officials think they're doing more for their constituents by providing local police service. That has never been borne out," Greenberg says.

He says officials tend to underestimate the staffing needed to patrol streets and the costs of doing police business, such as maintaining vehicles. They can overlook the value of the crime labs and other amenities that come with state or county services. Small towns also can find it hard to pay salaries that attract and retain good officers.

But he adds that a growing town has reason to consider its own police force. And Perryville is growing.

A town with history -- Captain John Smith passed through nearly 400 years ago, and George Washington was a regular visitor at Rodgers Tavern -- Perryville stretches from an outlet shopping center on Interstate 95 to the mouth of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Its population has grown over the past decade from less than 2,000 to about 3,000, as condominiums have been built along the river and houses at the site of a former cannery.

In recent years, the town has annexed land, once farms, that is now the site of 500 homes. Officials expect more residential and business development along U.S. 40 in Perryville.

Despite the growth, serious crime is virtually nonexistent here. Troopers are sometimes called on to break up domestic disputes or investigate burglaries. But drivers speeding through neighborhoods and teen-agers vandalizing property are the biggest complaints.

Some see no need

Many in Perryville say there is no need for a town police force. "I've never felt unsafe," says Bam Stanley, a waitress pouring coffee and serving hot roast beef sandwiches at Caldwell's Family Restaurant on Pulaski Highway. "It's just teen-agers doing teen-ager stuff, kids being kids. Most of it you resolve by going to their parents."

Asked to recall a noteworthy crime in Perryville, Linda Ferrigno answers: "Someone broke into the neighbor's garage, took his John Deere tractor and drove it into a ditch and left it."

Ferrigno, taking a quick break from shipping orders at Mary Martin Post Cards ("The World's Largest Post Card Shop," according to the window display on the store) nonetheless says the growing town should have its own police department because it could respond quickly to even the most mundane calls.

Under the resident trooper program, the officers patrolling Perryville answer to barracks commanders in Northeast. "At times that's proven cumbersome," says Pearson, Perryville's 41-year-old mayor.

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