Mercersburg mayor and police chief discuss law enforcement challenges

February 27, 2013|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Mercersburg, Pa., Mayor James C. Zeger, right, talks about the borough's police department as Police Chief John D. Zechman listens in.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — These are challenging times for the Mercersburg Police Department.

Residents and businesspeople have filled meeting rooms to air grievances about commercial truck inspections, officers’ community involvement and accusations of police tailing drivers without cause. The Mercersburg Borough Council developed a new committee and invited Tuscarora Area Chamber of Commerce involvement to look at the issues.

At the helm of the police department are Mercersburg Mayor James C. Zeger and Police Chief John D. Zechman.

Zeger, who became mayor in April 2003, last week canceled the truck inspection program.

“I hope by not having the truck inspections anymore, we can settle down as a community and get back to working on the needs of the community. On both sides of this debate, you’ve had feathers that have been ruffled and they need to be put back in place,” he said.

A Pennsylvania State Police retiree, Zechman took over as Mercersburg’s police chief in 2009. He and Zeger recently sat down for an interview.

How would you like the community to perceive your department?


Zechman: As a community policing department. We have good officers who have integrity and are doing their job. They’re not sitting in the station. They’re out in the borough enforcing the law, assisting citizens, doing investigations.

Zeger: I’d like to see it known as a very professional organization with integrity. I personally believe we have the best police department we’ve ever had in Mercersburg. It’s always a challenge in Mercersburg because of the smallness of it to get quality officers, but because of the chief, a lot of them want to come to get trained under him because of his valuable experience.
There is no morale problem in our police department. We used to have one. Now, they come and do their jobs. That’s part of the problem a little bit. Some lackadaisy from before is now being done in a professional manner, and that has a little bit of getting used to. I do think they do a lot of friendly stuff. They do a lot of things that don’t get said, don’t get told in the paper. ... Our policemen are always on call to assist and help and do service in the community.

What are some of the challenges associated with small-town policing?

Zechman: I think one of the challenges here in Mercersburg is knowing what the police department was like before and now having a department that enforces the law. When I say “enforce,” we give a lot of warnings also. We have a lot of contacts with the public in issuing citations, issuing warnings, issuing faulty equipment cards, stopping and talking with people on the street.
I think part of the problem is that we cover one square mile. I’m told we have about six miles of roadway, so I get complaints that “officers are following me, trying to get me to do something wrong.” Well, we don’t have a very big area to cover, and I’m sure at times it may seem that way. It isn’t our policy to follow someone around intentionally.
Now, if someone gets our eye — maybe they cross the center line but not enough to issue a citation or pull them over for a warning, but maybe just crossed it slightly — we may follow to see if there is a problem, but if there isn’t one, we will be peeling off at some point.

Zeger: A lot of the complaints we’re hearing are complaints that are not necessarily just yesterday, it’s like five years ago or six years ago. (This issue with the) truck inspections, it gave them a chance to vent their frustrations.
I’ll just speak personally. I don’t know anybody who loves to get pulled over by the police. You have that normal reaction.
I want our officers to be courteous. They have a job to do, and they’ve been trained to do their job. If someone who gets pulled over gets feisty and gets in their face, they react accordingly, which they have to do. An officer stopping someone late at night is in a dangerous situation. They have to be careful and take safety (precautions) to guarantee their safety as well as the people in the car. A lot of people don’t want to admit to their fault. It’s always someone else’s problem.
One of the problems that police have is when they do give somebody a break, someone else wants to know why they didn’t get it. It’s a matter of trying to help the people in the town and at the same time enforcing the laws. For all of us, we live by laws. If we don’t live by them, you’re going to have to pay the price of breaking the law.

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