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Delegation supports HCC police powers

January 28, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- From time to time, a student applying to enroll at Hagerstown Community College will admit to having a criminal history.

Henry Gautney, the chief of Campus Police and Safety at HCC, says he would like to know the specifics behind any criminal behavior before allowing a potentially dangerous student onto campus -- especially in light of the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007.

On Wednesday, Gautney asked members of Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to support a bill giving HCC's officers additional police powers. It would let officers there access a criminal database for background checks with consent.

The delegation agreed, voting unanimously to introduce the bill.

Currently, four special police officers, two security officers and Gautney can arrest people and issue traffic citations.

The bill supported by local lawmakers would give HCC officers access to an FBI criminal database and let them issue a criminal or juvenile summons, which sets a court date for the person who receives the citation.

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Currently, if someone is trespassing on campus, officers have to take that person to a District Court commissioner to issue a summons to appear in court. The bill would remove that step, and officers could issue the summons themselves.

A bill has previously passed the General Assembly that gave the same privileges sought by HCC campus police to officers at Baltimore City Community College.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said the previous bill would likely help HCC's case in seeking the same distinction for its officers.

"It's hard to give it to them and not to Hagerstown," he said.

Gautney said HCC officers first discipline students through the school's code of conduct, then seek criminal charges for more serious offenses.

Gautney said the college received an application from a student who was charged with attempted murder, but the case was later dismissed. Gautney said that can happen for a variety of reasons, including a lack of evidence to prosecute.

HCC officers would like to know those details before letting a student enroll.

"Without these background checks, we're really working blind out there," Gautney said.

The student would have to sign a waiver for his or her criminal background information to be reviewed -- as would anyone caught committing crimes on the campus.

"We have a safe campus," Gautney said. "And we want to keep it safe, but the tools of the trade, such as having access to criminal background (information, are) essential to security and safety on campus."

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