Although Carroll County posts one of the lowest ratios of police to population in the nation, law enforcement officials routinely rate it the safest jurisdiction in Maryland.
Those same officials, as well as the county commissioners, know the time is rapidly approaching when the fast-growing county will need a police force of its own.
With residents' increasing demands for a stronger, more-visible police presence in their far-flung communities and the Maryland State Police, Carroll's resident law enforcement agency since the 1970s, static in its numbers, the transition to a county police force is inevitable, officials said.
"There is a strong feeling that creating a local police force says we are acknowledging that we are no longer a rural county," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said. "This is not a matter of what identity the county would like to retain. It is a matter of meeting inevitable reality. All you have to do is look at the jail population to know we are not in Kansas anymore."
For the past three years, law enforcement officials have rated Carroll, the only metropolitan jurisdiction without a county police force, as the safest jurisdiction in Maryland. Arrests and the jail population are up - 100 percent in the last decade - and crime is down. Ideally, there should be two officers for every 1,000 residents, but Carroll's ratio is 1.2 officers per 1,000 and has occasionally fallen below the figure.
The county's cost to maintain the state police program has increased while the number of officers assigned to the Westminster barracks - the state's largest resident trooper program - has declined.
The barracks on Route 140 includes 27 uniform officers, seven investigators and 50 resident troopers - five of whom are assigned full-time to Mount Airy.
The county pays $4.3 million annually for the 45 resident troopers who patrol county roads, respond to calls in small, unincorporated communities and handle criminal investigations.
As Carroll's population climbs to 170,000, state officials have said they need resources elsewhere and cannot assign more officers to the county.
"While the state police will always have a presence in the county, policing will have to grow on the local side," said Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff. "The resident trooper component is not growing, even as the population grows by another 10 percent in the next five years. The question for the county is how to move forward."
A local force is a question of when, not if, officials said.
"We have talked about this for years," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "It always comes back to: Are we ready and do we need to do this? It is still in the future, but definitely on the radar screen."
A longstanding agreement gives both the county and the state police five years to handle any transition. The commissioners would create a policing plan that would address the realities of 2010 and beyond and decide whether the sheriff's department should be the local law enforcement agency. It costs the county $3 million annually for 69 sheriff's deputies, whose duties parallel those of the state police. The sheriff's department also operates around the clock.
"If we cut back on the resident trooper program gradually, a few each year, we can put those dollars toward hiring more deputies," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones.
Minnich called the state police "as fine a police force as any in the state, but they are expensive. They are not the bargain they were when the county adopted this plan as a stop-gap measure more than 30 years ago. Carroll County could make its sheriff's department the resident police agency. We would not be making a choice in the quality of policing, but in the color of uniform."
The ultimate decision rests with elected officials, said Greg Shipley, director of media communications for the state police.
"We are proud of our history in the county and we will continue to serve as long as the county wants," said Shipley, a retired state police officer. "We will support local law enforcement, however and wherever we can."
Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning, a former state police officer who commanded the Westminster barracks and is now president of the Maryland Sheriff's Association, said he made his department "a full-service law enforcement agency that gives the commissioners options as far as the future of policing in the county."
In Carroll, the state police and the sheriff's department could "share the community workload with no territorial jealousy," Tregoning said. "As local governments are able to afford local law enforcement, the state police will take on a supporting role."
A focus on cost-effectiveness and a gradual transition would make the change more palatable to the public, he said, pointing to other Maryland counties that have dealt successfully with the change in policing.