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Police officers in short supply in West Virginia

Police say they do not have enough officers to carry out all their required duties.

Police say they do not have enough officers to carry out all their required duties.

February 24, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

If you're a victim of a crime such as theft, vandalism or even a more serious offense like burglary, many times police in Berkeley and Jefferson counties will not be able to help you.

Police say they cannot devote the time they need to solving such cases because they do not have enough officers or because they are too busy with other duties, such as providing court security or carrying out court orders.

In many instances, crimes like shoplifting, vandalism and theft of tools from construction sites go unsolved in Berkeley County unless they happen to be linked with a major crime, said Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith.

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At the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, there is a lot more to worry about in addition to crime, said Chief Deputy Jesse Jones.

Deputies and administrators are struggling to keep up with a long list of duties that includes transporting mental patients to medical care facilities, issuing court summonses and subpoenas, carrying out court orders, providing security for courts, handling criminal extraditions and overseeing a concealed weapons permit program, Jones said.

Because deputies are so busy with the workload, they often do not have the time to adequately investigate crimes, Jones said.

Take property crimes, for example.

Property crimes include offenses such as burglary, theft and vandalism.

It is common for about 70 to 75 percent of all property crimes reported to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department to be in an "open" or "pending" status, Jones said.

In other words, only about 30 percent of the department's property crimes are usually solved, Jones said.

If a burglary complaint is received, a deputy will respond to the scene, gather as much evidence as possible and try to interview neighbors to determine if they observed anything, Jones said.

If there is a rash of burglaries and investigators are able to determine that they are being conducted by the same individual or group, deputies may be able to make arrests and solve the case, Jones said.

But if no additional information arises regarding a burglary case, it often gets little attention, Jones said.

"What you're doing is taking the report and filing it, basically," Jones said.

Area police point out that the problem is not always related to lack of staff. Some crimes are difficult to solve, especially if there are no witnesses or evidence.

Area police also emphasize that officers are doing a good job of following through on the crimes they are able to investigate.

The police officer shortage trend comes at a time of soaring population growth in the area and significant jumps in some types of crimes.

Ted Anderson, chief of the Martinsburg Police Department, said he has never seen such violent crime as he has witnessed in the area recently.

Anderson related the recent string of at least 12 robberies that have occurred in Berkeley County since October. Banks, convenience stores and a motel have been targeted in the spree.

While Berkeley County's population has soared to more than 75,000 people, West Virginia State Police struggle to get enough troopers to serve the county.

There were 24 troopers in Berkeley County in 1999 but now there are 14, said John Droppleman, a Berkeley County-based trooper and member of the board of directors for the West Virginia Troopers Association.

Because of the trooper shortage, state police in Berkeley County are not staffing the midnight-to-8-a.m. shift on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, state police said.

The troopers association recently put up a billboard along W.Va. 9 near Baker Heights to bring attention to the issue. "West Virginia State Police. Under-manned ... Underpaid. Under the gun. Help us - help you. Call Gov. Wise at 1-888-438-2731," the billboard read.

The troopers association also produced a pamphlet that lists statistics including that the number of troopers in the state has dropped from 702 to 584 since 2000. Interstate patrols have been eliminated, overtime has been restricted and retirement plans are inferior, the pamphlet states.

"How safe are you really?" the pamphlet asks.

Droppleman often makes the same point.

Droppleman said state police in the Eastern Panhandle may be able to deal with a manpower shortage now, but he worries about how the department will be able to control crime when the weather warms up and criminals start getting more active.

"I don't know what we're going to do in the summertime. The public's really going to get hammered," Droppleman said.

The situation is aggravated further by the fact that fewer people are training to be troopers.

There are two trooper training classes under way in the Charleston, W.Va., area that initially included 90 cadets, said West Virginia Secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety Joe Martin.

The number of cadets in the two classes has dropped to about 50 after some decided they couldn't complete the training or did not want to continue, Martin said.

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