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State police secrecy rankles lawmaker

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Thursday, June 13, 2013, 11:47 p.m.
 

The Pennsylvania State Police will tell you how many troopers it has statewide, but not how many are stationed at your local barracks.

That's what state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union, found when he asked how many troopers are assigned to the Uniontown barracks, the state police hub in his district. A state police liaison rejected his verbal request on the grounds that releasing that figure would threaten public safety.

Mahoney said the state House Appropriations Committee made a similar request and was rejected.

State police did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment Thursday.

“We do have a public safety issue here with the state police complement,” which had 465 vacancies statewide as of April 30, Mahoney said.

The state police is authorized to have 4,689 troopers.

“We need to know where we are. We have to concentrate on the crime areas — in Fayette County, we're having a shooting every other day. ... I just want to see more troopers on the street.”

Mahoney filed a written open records request on Wednesday for the trooper complement at the Uniontown barracks, the number of trooper vacancies at that barracks and the number of troopers there eligible to retire as of June 30.

“These are clearly public positions, paid for by the taxpayer — and members of the public have a right to know how many troopers are assigned to protect them,” Mahoney said in his request.

Mahoney sponsored the House version of the Open Records Law in the 2007-08 session.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said there's a “significant problem” with access to state police records and police records in general.

“What's important to recognize here is that just because the state police say ... (releasing the information) is going to compromise public safety doesn't mean they've met the burden of proof. ... They have to make factual allegations supported by evidence that shows how the release of this record would compromise public safety.”

Mahoney said it's crucial that the General Assembly have the state police data when it makes decisions about funding the state police and cadet classes in the final state budget. The House on Wednesday passed its version of a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Under the state's Right to Know Law, the state police must respond in writing within five business days. The agency could approve or deny the request or request a 30-day extension to issue its response.

Nathan Byerly, deputy director of the open records office, said he is not aware of any previous cases dealing with the breakdown of troopers assigned to each barracks. He said he could not comment on whether specific records would be released under an active request.

The office ruled in April that the state police had to turn over a list of names of municipal police officers certified by the state police to carry a firearm. State police had denied a newspaper's request for the roster, claiming it would threaten public safety and hinder undercover investigations, but the office found no evidence that harm was likely.

The state police have appealed that ruling in Commonwealth Court.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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