October 18 – With the resignation of Councilman Bob Bruchey last week, the Hagerstown Mayor and Council are down by one person.
But yesterday, Councilwoman Shelley McIntire was in Sweden, which left three members at the table for the work session.
Bruchey’s resignation came as a pretty big surprise.
Hagerstown Mayor Tekesha Martinez said, “Just before we started, he handed me a resignation letter. I have a lot of love and respect for Bruchey. I really, really do. He’s taught me a lot. I like to look and see how to pull the principle out of what is happening or what has been said. So he gives me a lot of principles for someone that has been a part of public service for 19, 20 years. So my first reaction was like, why? Like why? We have one year left. Why? I mean, he said he has to do what’s best for his family. That just lets you know, you just never know. You have to be prepared as leadership to go with the ebbs and the flows. You have to be prepared to take a loss and then to figure out how to gain it back. You have to be prepared for that.”
The Hagerstown Police Department has asked for some additional part time help from council.
HPD Chief Paul Kifer said, “All the credit in the world goes to the men and women in my department that see these things and have ideas and they come and say hey, can we do this? Can we do that? They came to me with the drone program. My only contribution was I wanted to make it bigger than they came to me with, so instead of buying one or two drones, I said let’s buy 12 and let’s train up as many guys in the department and gals in the department as we can so we can put these things in the air as much as possible. So it’s been a huge success. We used the selling point that was easy for the community to understand was the dirt bikes and the four wheelers that were running around town to be able to go after them and do it safely. It took us three weeks and in three weeks we knocked that problem out of the park.”
Is it still happening at all?
Chief Kifer said, “Every once in a great while, we’ll have one for about 15 minutes somewhere. But they come out and then they quickly go back in. They’re one offs. They’re there, a young man is riding his dirt bike in an alley or something. It’s not like before we’re on the main roads and terrorizing the motoring public. So it’s essentially going away.”
Are there different kinds of drones?
Chief Kifer said, “We have three levels of drones. The original drones that we had were basically our mid-level drones, that’s the ones we’ve had for a couple years. We expanded that. We bought quite a few more of those and then we bought four larger drones. The larger drones have just better capabilities. They have better cameras. The zoom capability on his cameras are phenomenal. I can fly one of those drones up at Fairgrounds Park and I can read tag numbers on cars at the Sheetz on Dual Highway, from about four feet in the air.”
The drones also have infrared and night vision.
Chief Kifer said, “We were very fortunate to have it when we had some young people decide they wanted to break into a shopping center out at Home Depot and were on the roof. We were able to track all those guys with the drone at nighttime, watched them climb into a ventilation duct to try to hide from us and if it wouldn’t have been for us seeing that with a drone we probably would have missed two of those guys that hid there. So those kinds of capabilities are nice. So if we get into a search issue in a wooded area, we can see that heat source. We can identify that we know where they are.”
Smaller drones are used to fly into homes and buildings.
Chief Kifer said, “We use them primarily on search warrants right now. So whenever we have our SWAT team that’s going to go in, they’ll breach the door. We’ll send the drone in ahead of them, and they’ll clear as many rooms as they can. They come to a door that’s closed and we enter and then we open that door, we send the drone through and it’s just safer for the guys, safer for the people that are inside so that we don’t have any accidental issues that happen. It allows us to kind of slow things down and methodically go through and safely do what we’ve got to do.”
When it comes to hiring more police officers, Chief Kifer has found a way to do it without needing money.
He said, “I have a staff that is very good and makes me look really, really good and a lot smarter than I am. We find ways to use the budget that we have in a lot of ways. I’ve been raised to be very fiscally responsible to run my own house, my own budget. So I treat the budget that I have the same way. I feel that I have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers in Hagerstown to use that money appropriately. So if I can repurpose the money that I already have to do the things I need to do more efficiently, I’m always going to try that first.”
When it comes to hiring, there is some good news.
Chief Kifer said, “We are looking at this coming Monday, we’re going to be hiring two additional people, that’ll be our last two for this coming academy. I’m looking to put 12 people into our next academy, which is a number that we just haven’t seen in years. We’ve noticed in the last year and a half the number of people that are interested in getting into the profession with us has grown, so whatever that COVID mindset that people have gotten into when it comes to work seems to be coming out of that a little bit. The fog of that seems to be lifting. We’ve been getting a lot more interest in wanting to get hired on to the police department. So our guys are really busy doing backgrounds, trying to find local people to do the job. We can reach out far and wide but what we found there is that you might not stay because your family’s from wherever they are and you’ll eventually move back. So trying to find local people that have a vested interest in the community that they live in, is really where you’re trying.”
As of Monday, there will be 80 people in the HPD.
Chief Kifer said, “I haven’t seen those numbers in quite a few years here since I’ve taken over, so it’s been good.”
Part time officers may also be an option.
Chief Kifer said, “I’ve got situations where we just need some help with manpower during certain times of the day or certain days of the week that I can hire some part timers and say I need you to work at the Sheetz on the Dual Highway with the issues we’ve been having out there over the summer of vagrancy and all the other stuff. They can go out there and they can help target that. It frees our guys up to then handle those calls for service, which just eases some of that. Opening up our watch center that we started a while back. We’re hiring retired dispatchers or cops and now even some civilians to handle as many police calls over the phone as we possibly can, again frees up that limited staff that I have to allow them to do those more police related things that require you to show up on the call.”
Has there been any pushback on privacy issues with drones?
Martinez said, “I haven’t. If I have seen anything, it might have been just folks that probably were enjoying the dirt bikes or riding the dirt bikes saying, what about our privacy? But for the most part, the public has been very excited that there’s a safe way to be able to make them feel safer and to be safer.”
Chief Kifer added, “Early on I think there was more of a fear of that privacy expectation, but we were very transparent upfront. We put out what our policy was, what the law is, how we’re going to utilize these things. We did that prior to putting them up in the air, so that everyone knew what we were going to do with that. We can’t just randomly do surveillance on an area that we don’t have complaints on. The law doesn’t allow us to do that. But the privacy issue really comes down to what the legal part is and the legal part is you don’t own the airspace above where you are. A long time ago, if I needed to see what’s going on in your backyard and there’s a six foot privacy fence and your neighbor allows you to climb the tree to look in that yard, that’s completely legal to do. I can’t use my binoculars to look into your home, though. There’s little nuances when it comes to the privacy part of it, but for us flying the drone, I can fly it over your house, I can look in your backyard. I can’t fly down in and then look into your home. Because I couldn’t do that from where I am so it has to be the same as the person. So if you’re down in that area, I can’t just fly up to your window and put the drone camera into your window without legal processes to do that. But I can fly above you and I can I can do those things.”
What have been issues in the past few years?
Chief Kifer said, “The challenges that we’ve had over the last couple of years has really been the attitude towards the profession in general. Now, we’ve not really felt that in Hagerstown and Washington County, except for those that don’t like us because they just don’t like us. But that had a real hard impact on the psyche of men and women in our profession, across the nation really. That seems to have passed in the large part. But the national talking points on some of this still is out there and it still has an impact on our guys.”
HPD has been accredited since 1994.
Chief Kifer said, “We follow some national standards and we do things that we’re transparent about. We’re very proud of being the professional department that we are. We’re trying to be innovative in what we do, and rethink how we provide the service to our community with the limited resources that we have, bodies that we have so that the people in our community don’t feel that difference, that they don’t realize that there’s less cops when they’re still seeing the outcomes being the same. All the credit in the world goes to the men and women that work those shifts, that are handling those calls, that are running those calls. We’ve been working short staffed for several years now and I’m very proud that I don’t believe that our community feels that. They don’t realize that.”
Both the police and council are willing to work with people directly.
Chief Kifer said, “I’m not afraid to talk to anybody. People are hurting and whether what they’re complaining about or they’re coming to us about it is legitimate or not, it’s legitimate to them at the time. And if you ignore that, then it just allows things to fester and foster into something that is bigger than what it could be. So being able to go out and talk to people and meet them where they are and see what their issues are and be legitimate in your responses back is what the key is. You can’t give lip service and say, oh, we’ll take care of that when you can’t, when there’s something that you know you can’t do, you need to be honest with the people and tell them look, we can’t do that. But here’s what we can do. But we’re here to help you, not always fix your problems. We’re here to help you fix your problems in your community. That’s a key that I’ve lived by for my career is that we’re not the guardians, we’re not the occupiers of communities. We’re the people that come in and help you take your community and make that community what you want it to be and without the community’s help, we’re just going to be locking people up. We did that for a long time in the 90s in the early 2000s, just went and made arrests, thinking that’s what the answer was. That is the answer to one part, but there’s other answers that have to go along with that. We want to help you with your issues, with your addiction, with your mental health, whatever that is, but at the same time if you commit a crime, you need to be held accountable for that as well. The mayor and I have had lots of talks about that. It’s a balance.”
There are a lot of changes coming to Hagerstown in a lot of different avenues.
Martinez said, “For me that’s always been a part of the conversation. If you can foresee where you’re going to be in four to five, 10 years, then how do you get your community ready? I think that’s one of the things that is public safety. My approach to public safety was not to take away accountability, but to give the power back to the people in our community. I believe that with these four years of this administration, I believe that we have been community driven and we have shown the community how to love and take care of our city, whether everyone does it or not, I don’t know. But I believe that foundation will set us up for when we have visitors coming, when we have many more people driving in and out of our city, that we’ll have a sense of home. This is home. We love Hagerstown. I think that that was the spirit of which I came into public government, was to make us love home. So that when people come over to my home, you don’t get to just do whatever you want to do. You know, this is my home. So that’s my hope is that when everything opens up next year, and the year after, that the people from Hagerstown that have been here through this, that have seen when downtown was nothing, that have seen when there was not much going on, now feel a sense of pride. This is home.”
Chief Kifer said, “We’ve been planning with the stadium and these other venues coming, we’ve been preemptively repositioning our staff and purpose so that we can get ahead of that. I’m not worried about the influx of new people coming in because legitimate use of space reduces crime. So when you have a space where you’ve got 1,000 people that are there for a legitimate purpose, shopping and going to events, doing those things, then that criminal element that could be there won’t be there because criminals want to be in the shadows. They don’t want to do those things where there’s a lot of people, where they can be seen. So providing that legitimate purpose to space will actually help us. What people want is an image of seeing a cop, seeing that presence there, that’s what I need to do. We’re looking to enhance our camera system downtown, to enhance, to cover alleyways and things like that because we have a lot of people moving around in spaces that are not normally moving around now with these new venues coming in. So again, providing that space, looking at lighting changes and all those things that just make an environmental difference that make people feel safe. So I’m excited for what’s going on. We’re actually happy that the stadium is coming downtown. We think it’s going to be a good thing. We’re looking forward to the Fieldhouse and the people that are going to come for those events, volleyball and basketball. We just had the BMX event that had, you know, thousands of people there, even though it was raining. Those are just great, great things that bring people to the area that realize that there is something here.”
Martinez said, “The things that people, other municipal leaders are coming to Hagerstown for, they come up and say I was just in Hagerstown for your antique shops. We stayed in Hagerstown. We heard Hagerstown is going to be the sports mecca. You hear how great Hagerstown is and how much noise we’re making. Oh, my God, your police chief is amazing. Your police department, what have they done? Wow. So you have to be mindful. There’s the truth and then there’s what you feel is the truth.”