Carroll wants police force

Commissioners approve creation of county department

October 05, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

The Carroll County commissioners have voted to create a county police department with an appointed chief to replace a resident trooper program that has been based at the state police barracks in Westminster for 33 years.

Carroll County is the last jurisdiction in Maryland to rely on the state police as its primary law enforcement agency.

Yesterday's decision came after years of discussion among county and police officials about dissolving the state program because of the expense and a shortage of available troopers.

"The cost comparison justifies some kind of change," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said.

The county paid state police $4.9 million during the 2007 fiscal year for 36 resident troopers and nine investigators for law enforcement. In comparison, $4.3 million was budgeted for 94 employees in the Sheriff's Department, including 67 deputies, officials said.

Carroll Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning has pushed for the past few years for his department to assume primary control of policing, but all three commissioners said yesterday that they favor establishing their own department and selecting its chief.

"I have reservations about an elected official heading a police force," Minnich said, discussing a committee report that recommended creating a county police department. "The last few years I've considered to be a transition to the day when we have something that is a little bit more cohesive than basically two separate law enforcement agencies."

In 17 of Maryland's 23 counties, the sheriff's department is responsible for law enforcement, while the state's five largest jurisdictions have police chiefs appointed to head local departments.

Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, said the next step would be to appoint a task force to oversee the transition to a county police department. The group would include representatives from the state police and the sheriff's office.

As the county's population has swelled to 170,000, it has strained the manpower of the resident trooper program. State officials have told the commissioners they cannot allocate additional troopers to Carroll.

Although Carroll has a low crime rate, it lacks a strong police presence.

Five of the county's eight municipalities - Westminster, Taneytown, Hampstead, Manchester and Sykesville - have their own police departments, employing 76 people.

Having this variety of police agencies in the county has caused confusion during emergencies.

Lag time on calls

Residents have complained to the commissioners about a lag time, as emergency calls are transferred from the county's 911 center to the Westminster barracks, and then sometimes forwarded to the sheriff's office.

Sheriff's deputies are viewed as more responsive to emergency calls than state troopers, Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge told then-state police Superintendent Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins in March. She said that the sheriff's deputies are often the only police officers to show up.

"Both are very good groups, but at the same time, not working well together," she said.

Officials said that a plan to consolidate emergency communications under one county system should come before the commissioners in the next month.

The Westminster Police Department now dispatches its own calls. The Westminster barracks dispatches calls for the Sykesville and Taneytown police departments, while the county 911 center handles calls for Hampstead and Manchester.

The county has a requirement of 1.3 sworn police officers per 1,000 residents, compared with the state average of 2.5 per 1,000.

As the Sheriff's Department has struggled to recruit and retain deputies, Carroll's ratio has been as low of 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, county officials said.

Five-year transition

While the county transitions out of the resident trooper program over a five-year period, the commissioners said they would try to keep an adequate number of police on duty.

Perhaps the sheriff's office could expand its number of deputies to maintain enough officers until a county police department is established, Tregoning said. Still, he said, he hopes that the commissioners might reconsider their decision.

"The best system for policing in the United States is with the sheriff's office," Tregoning said. "It's an elected office where the citizens determine who their leading law enforcement official is."

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