Attempt to learn state police staffing a draw for Mahoney
State Rep. Tim Mahoney said on Monday he is disappointed that state police are using public safety as a shield to withhold disclosing the number of troopers assigned to the Uniontown barracks, and he says he'll appeal the decision.
Mahoney maintains that such a disclosure would enable the public and state legislators to better understand the agency's manpower problems and enhance efforts to improve police patrols.
“This (disclosure) doesn't do me or the citizens of Fayette County any good,” said Mahoney, a South Union Township Democrat.
“We need to have something to go on. I don't believe their argument (that disclosure could harm public safety). ... Basically, they are saying, ‘You're not going to get the records because we don't want to give them to you,' ” Mahoney said.
Mahoney filed a formal Right to Know request June 12 with state police seeking the number of troopers assigned to the Uniontown barracks, the number of unfilled or vacant trooper positions, and the number of troopers there who were eligible for retirement as of June 30. He made a written request after a verbal request for the figures was rebuffed.
State police open records officer William A. Rozier in Harrisburg replied to Mahoney's request last week, stating the agency was granting his record request “in part” and denying it in part.
Rozier disclosed in his July 24 letter that there are 16 vacancies at Uniontown, and no troopers are eligible for retirement at the present time.
Rozier, however, said the agency was denying Mahoney's request to report the total number of troopers “because the responsive record is non-public.”
Rozier wrote that disclosure of the numbers would be “intrinsically harmful.”
“The public availability of these complement numbers would provide an intelligence conduit for criminals. Technically and tactically proficient individuals who plan and execute criminal operations could leverage manpower information of local law enforcement agencies and make educated judgments as to their ability to avoid apprehension,” Rozier wrote.
Further, Rozier wrote that releasing the numbers that Mahoney sought “could compromise investigations and imperil(ing) individuals.”
He added that such matters are exempt under the state's Right to Know Law.
But Mahoney disagrees. He noted that trooper positions are paid for by taxpayers and the public has a right to know “how many troopers are assigned to protect them.”
Mahoney said he hopes to eventually use the information for a countywide law enforcement study group to look into cooperative police coverage and alternatives to combat crime.
He doubts that his request for numbers of troopers “amounts to any threat” of public safety or of law enforcement officers.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed.
“I don't believe providing the bare number of troopers causes any risk to public safety or officer safety. I think perhaps state police may have a stronger argument if the request was for specific schedules, or hourly staffing levels. ... Those things may raise safety concerns,” Melewsky said.
“But I don't think Pennsylvania State Police have met their burden of proof under the law, but the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg, or a court will ultimately decide that question,” she said.
Mahoney, who sponsored the House version of the Open Records Law in 2008, said he formally appealed the state police decision on Monday to the state Office of Open Records in Harrisburg.
In his two-page written appeal, Mahoney argued that state police “NOT providing the number of troopers assigned to the Uniontown barracks puts the public's personal security at risk and is intrinsically harmful, because withholding this information keeps the public in the dark as to its level of police protection.”
As for disclosure threatening public safety, Mahoney wrote in the appeal, “only a fool would believe that current or would-be criminals do not already have a pretty savvy idea when the level of police presence and response times work in their favor.”
“Furthermore, I would argue that since PSP salaries are paid using taxpayer funds, the public deserves a full accounting of how its money is being spent, particularly in the area as vital as police protection,” Mahoney wrote.
Under state law, upon the receipt of the appeal, the Office of Open Records will ask both parties to submit additional information to outline their cases. The office then has 30 days to make a decision on whether state police have met the burden of proof to withhold the information.
Mahoney maintains that although state police reported 465 vacancies statewide from its presently authorized full complement amount of 4,689, he has heard that number may have climbed to 513 during the last two months with retirements.
“It would be different if we were graduating 200 or 300 from the police academy each class, but we're only seeing about 80 graduates at best twice a year. This is a statewide problem ... how are we going to maintain adequate patrols?” Mahoney asked.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.