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Hagerstown police chief defends officer who pulled over councilwoman

June 19, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- Hagerstown's police chief has asked for the mayor and City Council's help to defend one of his officers who was called a liar last week by City Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer.

During an interview last Friday, Cromer called Patrolman Christopher Watt a liar because he wrote in a police report that she said "Do you know who I am?" when he asked for her registration and driver's license during a traffic stop May 26 on South Walnut Street.

Police Chief Arthur Smith, in a memo dated Tuesday, wrote that Watt's "reputation for truthfulness and professionalism in matters of this nature is excellent and after review of this instance, I see no reason to believe that there is anything different about this case."

Watt was "deeply troubled by the manner in which this event has unfolded and the statements made against his character and integrity," Smith wrote.

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"Anything our city leadership could do to assuage the concerns of this hard working police officer would be appreciated," he said in the memo.

Cromer said last week that she never stated "Do you know who I am?" Instead, she said, she asked whether it was necessary to get her license, which was in her luggage, if Watt already knew who she was.

Watt wrote in his report that Cromer used a sarcastic tone at several points during the traffic stop. After calling a supervisor for advice, and being told to use his discretion, Watt issued Cromer a warning rather than a ticket.

Cromer contended last week that she was the subject of a departmental vendetta because she is trying to limit the number of city-owned vehicles that municipal employees are allowed to drive home after work.

Of the 48 vehicles in the city's take-home vehicle program, 19 are driven by police officers, according to city documents.

Smith wrote that the police department is not targeting Cromer.

Cromer, who was driving her husband's SUV when she was stopped after allegedly going 43 mph in a 25-mph zone, said Watt singled her out from two other drivers who were traveling at about the same speed.

In his memo, Smith refuted Cromer's claim of being targeted. Among the statements listed in the memo were:

  • "This traffic stop was conducted on May 26, well before any contentious debate in reference to take-home vehicles."

  • "Officer Watt (and his supervisor) are among the majority of the HPD members that do not have take-home vehicles. This topic is of no particular interest to the officer."

  • "Unlike the other police agencies against whom we compete for candidates, we provide take-home vehicles only to a small percentage of our members."

  • "Officer Watt has limited familiarity with (Cromer) and had no idea of her identity when he initiated the car stop."

  • "Officer Watt was, in fact, uncomfortable when he realized who he had stopped and thus took the step of consulting his supervisor as to what action he should take next."

  • "Ultimately, he elected not to issue a citation despite a radar reading in excess of the posted speed limit."

  • "The report in question was not released to the press until they officially requested the same."

  • "There is no departmental vendetta against this or any elected official nor is there reason to believe otherwise."

    Three of the council members reached Wednesday said they support Watt.

    "I have no reason to believe (Watt) lied," Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said. "This has been a gross injustice to this officer."

    Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said she also thought Watt told the truth in his report.

    "I hope this incident doesn't affect (Watt's) job," Nigh said. "He's a young officer ... I hope he has the strength to get through it."

    From the evidence available, Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said he supports Watt and the Hagerstown Police Department.

    "Accusations concerning the integrity of city employees and elected officials should not be made lightly," he said.

    Cromer declined to comment, but issued a statement that she asked be run separately from this story.

    In a statement issued Wednesday, Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said after reading Smith's letter to the mayor and council, "It is evident that he places great trust in officer Watt."

    He also said it is time to move forward.

    "As a City, we must believe in our officers who risk their lives everyday to protect and serve us, and in the elected officials who represent the people of our city," he said.

    "It is time for this Council and this officer to get back to the business of the City of Hagerstown and its people, focusing our energy on the positive changes that we can implement to move our city forward, not on the misunderstandings that can sap our strength and immobilize us, taking our eye off the ball," he said in the statement.

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