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Town cops get in touch with cell phones

March 03, 1999

Chief Donald GossageBy KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




If you think there's never a cop around when you need one, consider that starting next week Hancock's police officers will be packing cellular phones.

And the town's 2,000 residents will be given the phone number.

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"It will bring the community closer to the officers," Hancock Police Chief Donald Gossage said.

Gossage said the cell phones will make it easier for town residents to get in touch with the four members of the force.

Starting March 10, people will be able to call officers directly with nonemergency concerns.

Residents should continue to use the county 911 system for emergencies, Gossage said.

People who want to ask questions, offer information or report a crime can call, said Gossage. The number to call after next week is 301-331-0911.

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Currently, calls to police made during normal business hours are answered by officers or the town secretary.

Evening calls are picked up by an answering machine, and that's one of the reasons Gossage decided to pursue the cellular phones, he said.

"People would call up and leave a message that there is a loud party going on, someone's being disorderly, or stealing outside decorations - by the time the officer gets the message an hour later the suspects have gone," he said.

Gossage said messages occasionally got lost and that he has received several complaints from residents.

He learned of the cellular phone idea while attending a police conference in Salt Lake City recently. Gossage said he spoke with police chiefs from other small towns who recommended and used the service.

He said the range of the phones will encompass all of Hancock and will extend to Hagerstown.

While other police departments in the county have cellular phones, Hancock will be the only town to provide a direct number for the public, he said.

The department will have two flip-phones. The officer on duty will carry one and the other will be kept at the station. One phone will have a number that the public can call, while the other will be used for administrative purposes, he said.

A battery charger will be kept in each car and officers will carry their phones on belt clips. That will enable officers to maintain contact with callers as they travel to or investigate a scene, he said.

He said having the phones will also be a benefit when it comes to receiving tips about drugs or for other sensitive subjects.

"Everybody here has a scanner. This way the information wouldn't be broadcast so everyone can hear," he said.

Cellular One of Hagerstown donated the equipment, along with 300 free minutes and a voice-mail service.

Gossage expects the department will use the 300 free minutes within a few months. After that, the town will be charged 18 cents a minute for calls, he said.

He said $300 of the police budget was earmarked for the cellular phones for the rest of the year. Next year, $700 will be set aside, he said.

Calls will be logged and a record will be kept of each number, type of call and result.

Using the phones will have the added benefit of enabling police to increase coverage hours, he said.

He said they anticipate going from 16- to 18-hour coverage seven days a week to 20- to 24-hour coverage for the same period.

Hancock Police and a local Explorer post in the coming weeks will go door to door, distributing pamphlets and stickers that explain the new cellular phone service to residents, he said.

Gossage said he does not believe the public will abuse the phone system.

"I don't think we will get a lot of nuisance calls," he said. The phones are equipped with caller identification, which will allow police to clamp down on any such behavior, he said.

Gossage said the phone system has the support of the Town Council and the public.

"We talked to a lot of members of the public a few months ago about initiating the program. They were excited and said it was a step in the right direction," he said.

Hancock Mayor Daniel Murphy called the phone system an "innovative idea."

"It's been used successfully in other small communities," he said.

Murphy said the phones will be used for the rest of the year on a trial basis, after which the system will be re-evaluated to determine if it should be maintained.

"It's at little or no cost to the town at this point to try and see if it's beneficial," he said.

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