Charles Town police aim for better image

March 09, 1997


Staff Writer, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Patrolman Chris Colbert of the Charles Town Police Department aimed the radar at a speeding car on West Washington Street Extended Saturday evening.

Colbert pulled out behind the car, which he'd clocked doing 51 mph in a 25 mph zone. He turned on his flashing lights, and the car stopped on West Washington Street.

Before he stepped out of the cruiser, Colbert put on his wide-brimmed black campaign hat, a seemingly minor piece of police equipment, but an important one in the new police chief's plans to improve the department's image.


"I'm a firm believer that if you look sharp you're going to feel sharp," said Police Chief Mike Aldridge, who retired as a high-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration official.

For years, the Charles Town Police Department has battled two major problems - drug trafficking and a poor image caused in part by two officers who have gotten in trouble with the law themselves.

An International Association of Chiefs of Police study from last fall showed more than 30 areas of improvement needed at the department, from adding a police chief to making community relations better.

In January, the mayor and Charles Town Council hired Aldridge, who has worked with officers themselves and with local civic and church groups.

Under the new chief, officers are required to put on the campaign hats when they step out of their cruisers. He's also ordered new uniforms to replace worn out clothing.

Charles Town Mayor J. Randolph Hilton said that the changes have not gone unnoticed by the public.

Aldridge said that while some officers have "grumbled" about having to wear the hats, they also like the compliments they've received.

Aldridge also is working on improving the look of the police cruisers. He wants officers to make more traffic stops and patrol more aggressively.

Charles Town attorney William Martin, an outspoken critic of the police department, said that the police department has a long way to go.

"I wish them the best. There's a lot of work that has to be done," Martin said. "I've been talking to my neighbors and the police department has a low image.

"I've been impressed with what the new chief has said . . . but I just hope we get action along with the words," Martin said. "I think it's moving in the right direction of some type of accountability and supervision. What we had before was anarchy at the police department with officers doing their own thing."

On Saturday night, Colbert drove down the streets of the Dog Town neighborhood and other areas that once were open-air drug markets.

Where cars with Maryland and Virginia tags once lined up, the streets were quiet on Saturday night.

"Charles Town used to be real bad, but it's not as open as it used to be," said Colbert, who has been with the department for about a year.

Residents at recent community meetings have also praised the alterations.

"They're underestimated and they're not given the credity they deserve," said Matt Engle, president of Beware Against Drugs.

But how much of the change is due to perception and how much is based on actual results is unknown for now.

In 1994, the crime rate in Charles Town was significantly higher than the national average - 59.13 offenses per 100,000 population compared to the national average of 53.2 offenses. The average in West Virginia is 25.3.

Community leaders blamed the crime rate on addicts stealing to support their crack cocaine habits.

Aldridge said he wants to not only stamp out drugs, but to crack down on all crimes.

"We're going after zero tolerance on crime period,'' Aldridge said. "It doesn't matter if it's large crime or small crime. We're going to shut down the little things that bother people."

Motorists who drive with their stereos too loud will get $100 fines, Aldridge said.

Aldridge and Hilton say they wish they could give officers pay raises, but there is not enough money in Charles Town's budget. The police department costs the town about $548,000 a year, about half of the town's entire budget, Hilton said.

Colbert makes about $9 an hour while patrolling the streets. With a college education, Colbert would probably have no trouble landing a job at another police department in the area - nearly doubling his pay.

Colbert, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., said many officers stay because they grew up in Jefferson County.

"We've been really fortunate on the caliber of the young men we've hired lately, but we're going to have to be more aggressive in competing with other jurisdictions' salaries," Aldridge said.

"We know that 20 miles down the road they could be making $8,000 more a year and even 15 miles away they could be making $5,000 more."

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