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Small town appeals to new Smithsburg chief

March 13, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

SMITHSBURG - Being a police officer is about more than just about arresting criminals, according to Smithsburg Police Chief Ralf Berger.

Law enforcement involves getting to know a community, hearing people's concerns and finding solutions, he said.

A 15-year veteran of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, he said his undercover investigative work with the 100-deputy department didn't always allow him to establish a positive relationship with the public.

The opportunity to build such a rapport with the public is what brought Berger to Smithsburg, where he was sworn in as head of the police department's two-man force on Tuesday, he said.

"Instead of constantly exercising authority I can be a friend to the people," he said. Berger said he looks forward to eventually meeting all of Smithsburg's 1,200 residents.

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He said he will be a resource for the public, explaining laws and answering related questions.

Berger, 45, was hired to replace Vincent duCellier who went to Kosovo in September on a training mission for the United Nations.

The position was vacant about five months, and Mayor Tommy Bowers and the Town Council advertised extensively to fill the slot, which pays $30,000 plus benefits.

Berger was endorsed by Town Council members during Tuesday's meeting and Bowers said he thinks the new chief will be a good one.

"I like his down-to-earth manner. He's very knowledgeable about numerous areas of law enforcement and has a heavy background in drug enforcement," said Bowers, who previously served as police chief in Smithsburg.

Berger resides in Boonsboro with his wife, Cathy, 27. He has a son, Adam, 20, who is serving in the Army, he said. Additionally, the couple have been foster parents since 1996, he said.

He found Smithsburg's small-town atmosphere comfortable. It reminded him of Walkersville, Md., where he was raised, he said.

Berger is a 1972 graduate of Walkersville High School and served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Army National Guard.

The son of a former deputy for the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office, Berger said he grew in a disciplined household in which he learned to respect the law.

He wanted to continue in his father's footsteps and accepted a position as police officer for the Brunswick City Police Department in 1979.

Brunswick appealed to Berger because of the reputation it had then for high police activity, he said.

Its variety of different incidents, victims and offenders, provided "a good cross-section," he said. "I handled everything."

When the Frederick County Sheriff's Office initiated its patrol division in 1980, Berger said he jumped at the chance to "get in on the ground floor of a growing department."

Assigned to north Frederick County, Berger patrolled areas from Frederick to Pennsylvania for about three years before switching to the department's narcotics division, he said. Working undercover in drug stings was interesting to him, he said. "I was good at it and I liked the thrill of it."

"The dealers think they are slick, so you have to be slicker," he said.

Berger eventually went on to run the detective bureau and drug unit, often working six or seven days a week.

"We never ran out of work," he said.

In the spring of 1995 Berger left the department, working as a mechanic and in other areas, he said.

When a former co-worker mentioned the opening at the Smithsburg Police Department, he decided it would be the right time and the right place to re-enter law enforcement.

"Every officer dreams of working in a big city with big crime rates, but once you've been there you look for a little department where you can do the job but not have to work at 100 mph," he said.

As chief, Berger said he will pursue grants to fund another full-time police officer for the town, and for more equipment and programs.

While the Smithsburg Police Department typically responds to only about 30 calls for service a month, the job will still present a challenge, he said.

"The crime's the same, just on a smaller scale," he said. "It's no less dangerous, and what you're doing is just as important."

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