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Jones' departure gives city chance to trade up

May 13, 1999

Chief Dale Jones, who announced his resignation this week, should be leaving the Hagerstown Police Department on a high note. The number of major felonies dropped by 7.7 percent in 1998, 10 new officers were hired and the city began a major equipment upgrade that will allow officers in cruisers direct access to computer database.

And the job he's taking, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pays "a lot more" than the $71,510 he's making now. And yet, for a guy taking a step up, Jones was not very upbeat, choosing his words as carefully as if he'd just arrived, instead of like someone who's been here for five-and-a-half years.

No doubt Jones heard the same stories we did during the last election - that some candidates for city office had promised police rank-and-file a better pension plan and a new chief.

Recently, despite his praise in March when the '98 crime figures came out, Mayor Bob Bruchey II called for "zero tolerance" law enforcement, which to me sounds like another way to criticize the department for not doing enough.

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But it never figured to be easy for Jones. The first chief in modern times to be hired from outside the department, Jones followed Paul Wood and Clinton Mowen and walked a cautious path between the demands of the council - to curb crime without letting overtime get out of hand, to get more officers on foot patrol downtown and requests to have a live officer stationed in the lobby of police headquarters at night - and his desire to keep his officers happy.

Mostly he erred on the side of his officers, or at least those who consider the press a nuisance at best and an enemy at worst. Jones' refusal to force a change in their attitude resulted in the department's communications going from the best department in the region to one of the worst and most inconsistent.

Once upon a time not so long ago, a reporter could go to police headquarters at Burhans Boulevard, find the duty sergeant and ask for the report board. On it were copies of all crime reports for the day, and sometimes several days before. Sitting at a desk under the sergeant's watchful eye, reporters scanned the reports, wrote up the most serious, then returned the board and left.

Were we naive enough to believe that every report made its way onto that board? No, but by the volume of reports and the variety of cases, we got a pretty good picture of how police were spending their time.

Now the police issue press releases, but unless you've developed a personal relationship with the officer in charge, you may or may not get the information in a timely fashion.

A good example: Police recently did a prostitution sting on a Friday, but released no information on who'd been arrested until the following Monday. That's why if you read The Herald-Mail's weekend police log, you'll notice that many of the items are from Frederick. Police agencies there have a 20th Century view of their responsibility to provide information to the public. Some Frederick police agencies even have software that automatically faxes a copy of police reports to the newspaper.

And it's not as the newspaper hasn't tried to improve communications. Editors met several times with department officials, and identified where they felt the bottlenecks were. Jones promised to clear them, but if things changed for the better, the changes didn't last.

Why should you care about a falling-out between the newspaper and the police department? Because if a crime occurs in your neighborhood, chances are you want a description of the suspect, particularly if he's still at large. If one of your neighbors is charged with a crime and is out on bond, you might want to exercise extra care around that person.

In 1997, HPD delayed releasing information on a rape/abduction which allegedly occurred on Hagerstown's Dual Highway forwarded to them by Frederick State Police for an entire day. Luckily, the report turned out to be false, but I'm betting most women would rather have known police were working on the case than not. That same year HPD investigated an accident that led to the death of a 7-year-old child. They still haven't released the final report of that investigation.

Because of the taboo against political interference with police operations, Hagerstown's Mayor and Council could only do so much with Jones. Now they have an opportunity to "trade up," by doing a nationwide search for someone who will make it a priority not only to communicate with the newspaper, but with the public as well.

Will they do that? I'm not sure. This group, which has become addicted to secrecy in the past year, may not care enough about the public's input to make communication skills a priority in their search. That would be a shame, because without the public's trust and good will, HPD won't do as good a job as it might, if citizens knew all the good things its officers are doing.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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