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Actions of police, city councilwoman called into question

January 24, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

HAGERSTOWN

daniels@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown Police Capt. Charles Summers said Monday that no police regulations were violated when his officers decided to drive a city councilwoman to the Motor Vehicle Administration to update her registration rather than giving her a ticket for driving a vehicle with expired registration.

Less clear in the minds of public officials is whether Councilwoman Alesia Parson-McBean should have accepted the favor.

"The assumption that a member of council, or the elected body sharing some special relationship with the police department in a manner that exempts us from the laws that we have is not a philosophy that I condone or live by," Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said. "I think that we need to respond to those issues that have arisen from (this situation)."

At about 11:30 a.m. Friday, Hagerstown Police Officer Karen Hinchee stopped Parson-McBean outside police headquarters on North Burhans Boulevard for driving a vehicle with a registration that expired in November, Summers said Friday. She was not cited for the motor vehicle violation, which carries a fine of $60, Summers said.

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He said Lt. William C. Wright, the supervisor on duty at the time of the incident, gave Parson-McBean a ride to the MVA office off Sharpsburg Pike to renew her registration because she said she was on city business. Wright waited with Parson-McBean for 30 to 45 minutes, then drove the councilwoman back to police headquarters to reclaim her vehicle. Summers said other sergeants took over Wright's duties while he was out and that he spoke with the lieutenant about the matter before Wright drove Parson-McBean to the MVA.

Citing "privacy issues," Parson-McBean declined to disclose the nature of that business during an interview Friday. She said she felt the ride was justified.

"I believe I was in the capacity of doing my job," she said. "In order to get back to doing my job, I needed assistance from my colleagues."

Summers, the department's acting police chief, defended Wright's decision because Parson-McBean "is a member of city administration and needed to get back on the road to do business for the city. He thought that would be the most expeditious way to do that." Council members, he said, "do hold a different, more special relationship than the average citizen" with the police department.

On Monday, Summers said he did not know whether anyone asked Parson-McBean to verify the nature of her city business but he felt the department had no reason to doubt the councilwoman's assertion. He said he felt Wright and Hinchee acted appropriately.

"I think it was unusual, but I don't feel it is a violation of any of our regulations," he said.

Aleshire said he has not spoken with either Summers or Parson-McBean about the incident, which he said raises some issues the council will need to explore.

"To read that there's plenty of staff to do these activities makes me, and every citizen, question those requests," he said, referring to a recent city council meeting.

Summers asked the council during a meeting in November 2005 to increase the size of the police department from 101 sworn officers to 105 sworn officers. He said the department had about 96 officers, a figure depleted due to recent retirements, resignations and officers on military call-ups and maternity leaves. The council decided not to consider the measure until the city begins to put together its budget for next year. The council is scheduled to hold a budget retreat Feb. 24.

On Monday, Summers said he was not aware that police staffing issues were to be a matter before the council during its budget discussions. He said he does not believe anything Wright or Hinchee did jeopardizes the department's argument for additional staff members.

Aleshire said he felt the matter raises credibility issues, and that as a public official Parson-McBean might have thought more about not disclosing the nature of the city business she was on when stopped by the police.

"There are few issues, if any, that I ever feel I can't disclose to the public when asked," he said.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he does not think there was anything overtly wrong with the actions of either Parson-McBean, Hinchee or Wright, though he felt each could have handled the matter more appropriately.

"I think it could very easily have been handled by saying 'Ma'am, you need to go over to the MVA and get that taken care of today,'" Metzner said. "That's obviously not the kind of publicity that people want.

"If I had the choice I'd much rather get the ticket and the cab," to the MVA, he said.

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