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Colleagues still haunted by officer's slaying

December 19, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

SMITHSBURG -- One year after Smithsburg Police Officer Christopher Nicholson was fatally shot in the line of duty, the memory of that night still haunts the department's officers, Chief Charles R. Stanford said.

Better radio equipment, upgraded tactical vests, and new guns and tasers have helped officers feel more secure, but Nicholson's death serves as a constant reminder that there are some situations for which they can never be prepared, Stanford said Friday on the anniversary of Nicholson's death.

It was about 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 19, 2007, when police got a call that a man had harmed his ex-girlfriend and possibly could be headed to the Smithsburg area. Washington County Sheriff's Department deputies asked the Smithsburg Police Department for assistance, and Nicholson, the only Smithsburg officer on duty, responded. He was waiting for backup in a driveway off Welty Church Road when he was shot.

Douglas Wayne Pryor, 30, is awaiting trial on murder charges in Nicholson's death and the stabbing death of his ex-girlfriend, Alison Munson.

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The 12 months since the incident have been hard on the department's officers, who grieve for Nicholson, Munson and all the families involved, Stanford said. The department was to attend a private memorial service Friday night, he said.

Less than three weeks after the incident, the Smithsburg Town Council gave the police department the go-ahead to purchase more than $15,000 worth of new equipment. Though the new equipment probably would not have made a difference for Nicholson, it could save officers' lives in other situations, Stanford said.

One of the most important changes was an upgrade to repeater radios, which provide stronger signals for officers on foot by relaying the signal first to the car, then to the tower, he said. Before the upgrade, calls for backup made from portable radios sometimes went unheard, Stanford said. That was not the situation in the Nicholson incident, but could have had equally disastrous consequences, he said.

The department also purchased higher-grade tactical vests with an additional layer of armor for officers to keep in their cars. Nicholson was wearing a standard bullet-resistent vest, but was struck in the armpit, in an area the vest did not cover, Stanford said.

Another upgrade was a switch to PX Storm Berettas, the handguns used by the Washington County Sheriff's Department and Maryland State Police. That compatibility could be a lifesaver in a firefight, Stanford said.

"I just want to make it so if we get in a situation like this ever again, we're using the same type of weapons so we can exchange magazines (with Sheriff's Department or State Police officers) if we need to," he said.

The night of the shooting, Nicholson, 25, had a handgun but did not have a shotgun, Stanford said. Now, the department has shotguns mounted in every vehicle, he said.

Each officer now has a taser, a nonlethal device that can end a hand-to-hand altercation without serious injury to either party, he said.

Overall, the department is much better equipped than it was a year ago today, a fact that provides some reassurance for officers, but little emotional relief, Stanford said.

"Maybe in their minds it has made 'em feel somewhat safer," he said. "But they still have to think about that day every time they go out there."

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