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Trooper tally has dropped in county

November 19, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The number of road troopers at the Maryland State Police barrack in Hagerstown dropped to 21 as of September, information that conflicts with the number of troopers provided in a story last week by a spokesman at state police headquarters in Pikesville, Md., according to information obtained by The Herald-Mail.

In the story, Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman, said the Hagerstown barrack has been staffed with about 40 troopers since at least 1997, dismissing concerns of the Washington County Commissioners that the number of local troopers has been declining.

The County Commissioners said they have been told by police officials that the state police had been cutting back on the number of troopers in Hagerstown, which put the burden on the Washington County Sheriff's Department to pick up more calls.

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Rouse denied those claims in the story and said the local barrack has consistently had about 40 troopers.

However, an organizational chart from April 1998, which is signed by former barrack Commander Lt. D.W. Knott, listed 30 troopers. An organizational chart signed by current Commander Lt. Greg Johnston lists the number of road troopers at 21 as of September of this year.

The Herald-Mail obtained the charts last week.

The numbers on the charts indicate a loss of nine troopers at the Hagerstown barrack in four years.

"Why did they give you the wrong numbers?" Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz asked Saturday night. "What are they trying to cover up?"

"They do not have 40 road troopers in Washington County," Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Monday. "There's no way they're going to convince me they have 40 road troopers."

Rouse said he was told by others with the state police that 40 was an accurate number and that the state police didn't mean to mislead anyone.

"There is no intent to mislead you," Rouse said. "The information provided to me was that there were 40 troopers assigned to the barracks."

Rouse said the number includes corporals, who are on the road part time. The charts list five corporals - one per shift - who go out on the road.

He did not dispute the number of troopers listed on the organizational charts.

"The organizational charts are what they are," said Rouse, who also acknowledged that the number of troopers has dropped.

Del. Robert McKee, R-Washington, said he was surprised and disappointed that the number of troopers has gone down at the local barrack. He said the delegation should lobby the state for more troopers. He hopes the new governor will see it the same way, since he has made public safety one of the strong points of his campaign.

"It's important that (the Hagerstown barrack) be adequately staffed and we have adequate manpower," McKee said.

Rouse said a reason for the decline in troopers is that the number of calls the Hagerstown barrack receives has gone down over the last few years because the area the sheriff's department covers has gotten busier.

The number of calls the sheriff's department received over the last few years has increased, department officials confirmed in last week's story.

The state police cover the interstates and U.S routes in Washington County. The sheriff's department patrols county roads, as defined in a memo of understanding between county and state police, Rouse said.

"It looks to me that you have more going on with the Washington County Sheriff's Department than you do MSP," he said.

Rouse said state police Western Regional Commander Maj. Vernon Herron was directed by Lt. Col. Stephen Moyer to meet with Sheriff Charles F. Mades and the commissioners to discuss staffing issues.

Mades declined to comment.

Rouse said the memo of understanding with the sheriff's department may have to be adjusted to meet the needs of both agencies.

The commissioners have said the numbers on the organizational charts renew their concerns that state police protection in Washington County is shrinking.

Snook said he doesn't think there's much the county can do to stop the decrease in state police troopers locally.

"My concern all along is the county's picking up the tab," Commissioner William J. Wivell said.

Wivell said it doesn't make sense for the county to hire additional deputies when the number of state troopers is declining.

"Then we've gained nothing," he said.

Swartz said the apparent drop in troopers is a safety issue and may have played a part in an increase in fatal traffic accidents on roads and highways in the county.

In the year 2001, local state police handled eight fatal accidents. So far this year, the troopers had 20 fatal accidents, according to information obtained by The Herald-Mail.

Swartz said a lack of troopers limits road patrols, which help clamp down on dangerous driving.

"When you see a trooper sitting there ... you slow down to the speed limit," Swartz said.

Rouse said troopers are needed in 23 jurisdictions across the state, not just in Washington County.

"No one's been pulled from the Hagerstown barracks just to leave them short," Rouse said. "We need troopers all over the state, and Hagerstown has not been singled out. Hagerstown is one of the 23 pieces of the big puzzle for the state police."

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