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Hempfield, Murrysville have opposite views on paying for police protection

Brian Bowling
| Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, 12:57 a.m.
A state trooper responds to an accident in Hempfield in January. A Tribune-Review analysis shows that, of about 9,600 calls state police responded to in Hempfield in 2015, more than 6,900 probably would have been handled by local police, if the township had one.
Tribune-Review
A state trooper responds to an accident in Hempfield in January. A Tribune-Review analysis shows that, of about 9,600 calls state police responded to in Hempfield in 2015, more than 6,900 probably would have been handled by local police, if the township had one.

Murrysville residents, through local taxes, spend at least $149 per person on local police protection, according to state data. They also spend, through state taxes, about $91 per head on state police protection.

A Tribune-Review analysis of incidents handled by state police in 2015 suggests that about $38 of the state tax amount pays for troopers to provide local police protection for municipalities without their own force, such as neighboring Hempfield.

Setting up a local police department isn't feasible for rural municipalities with low population densities, but Hempfield is more heavily populated than its neighbor, Murrysville Mayor Bob Brooks said.

“It's a major cost for everybody in the state that they don't have their own police force,” he said.

Hempfield's population of 41,335 people is more than twice Murrysville's 20,042.

State police in 2015 responded to 106 calls in Murrysville, with its own police department handling 5,820 calls, records show. By comparison, troopers that year fielded some 9,600 calls in Hempfield.

A Trib analysis determined that nearly 2,700 of those incidents involved duties typically handled by state police, including interstate highway patrols, taking fingerprints for background checks, Megan's Law registration, and gambling and liquor law enforcement.

That left more than 6,900 incidents that probably would have been handled by local police, should a force exist.

State troopers provide local policing to 36 municipalities in Westmoreland County, 25 of which have no police force at all.

After Hempfield, the three that generated the most incidents in 2015 were:

• Unity, with 3,238 calls;

• South Huntingdon, with 2,511; and

• Salem, with 2,280.

Gov. Tom Wolf this year proposed charging municipalities without their own police departments $25 per person for state police to provide such coverage. According to state figures on municipal finances, communities that pay for local police, including part-time forces, spend an average of $131 per person. That's in addition to their share of the state police budget.

While the proposal attracted a lot of attention early on, it has largely disappeared as the House, the Senate and Wolf debate a state revenue package for next year.

“I don't even hear the governor talking about it anymore,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.

The state figures underestimate the cost for Murrysville, which is closer to $200 per resident, Brooks said. The cost for Hempfield to operate a local force probably would be less because it would be spread out over more people, he said.

“I just have a hard time believing that Hempfield gets away without providing that kind of service to its people,” Brooks said.

The idea that Hempfield is creating a burden on others is wrong, said Doug Weimer, chairman of the township's board of supervisors. The governor and the state police are responsible for public safety, not Hempfield, he said.

“Public safety is one of their paramount responsibilities. That is why the state police exist,” he said. “There is no mandate from the Legislature or the governor that requires any community to have its own police force.”

If Murrysville and other municipalities choose to offer additional services, that's their right, but it doesn't create a mandate for Hempfield, he said.

“That is a separate level of service that a community decides it wants to have,” Weimer said. “State police service is not the same as municipal police service.”

State police cover a wider area, which affects their response times to burglar alarms, bicycle thefts and other lower-priority incidents, he said.

“Will they investigate those concerns? Yes,” Weimer said. “Will they investigate it as quickly as a municipal force? No. They don't have the manpower.”

Two surveys of Hempfield residents show they are satisfied with the level of service they get from the state police, Weimer said.

“If they don't want to pay for a municipal police force, that's their prerogative,” he said.

Ward opposes the fee proposal but has sponsored legislation that would allow a municipality to contract with the state police if it wanted more coverage than the agency currently provides.

Rather than replace one revenue source with another, her proposal would increase funding for state police.

“I would like to see us have more troopers available,” she said.

Brooks, who was on Wolf's transition team when he prepared to take office in 2014, said one of the things the task force saw was that several larger municipalities such as Hempfield were relying on state police instead of operating their own police forces.

The group recommended the governor give them the option of paying a fee or going into a county police system, he said.

“Our state police have plenty to do, and what we don't need to do is keep bolstering state payrolls just because some places are unwilling to have local police,” he said. “I think it was the right answer.”

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, bbowling@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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