Chiefs decry new system, cite cost, time, safety risk
SHAMOKIN - Less than one month into conducting prisoner transports, some municipal police chiefs and officers in Northumberland County are fed up.
It's increasing the cost to conduct police business and creating scheduling nightmares, they say, that could cause some shifts to go uncovered.
"I've done it three times and it's terrible," said Shamokin Patrolman Nate Rhoades. "You're taking us away from doing our actual jobs."
"It's tying us up way too long. ... I want to see the constables put back in service again," said Brian Hollenbush, Mount Carmel Township police chief.
"We're pulling people off shifts. It's not like it was five or six years ago," Shamokin Police Chief Ed Griffiths said, alluding to what he views as a quieter time for the department. "It's become a safety issue."
Local police became responsible to drive imprisoned defendants to and from district court hearings on Jan. 1 after Northumberland County ended its long running practice of paying state constables to perform the task.
Shamokin police had eight prisoner transports last week, necessitating four trips to Northumberland County Prison in Sunbury. Two officers are sent on each trip to ensure officer safety.
On Monday there were six transports conducted by the department, including one to and from Schuylkill County Prison in Pottsville. With one available police cruiser, a city officer walked to Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III's office a half-mile away.
The distance isn't far, but the situation underscores Griffiths' frustration with municipal police having to assume transport duties.
"You have to remember, if we have one in Rockview (a Centre County prison) or one in Pittsburgh, we got to go get him," he said. "This isn't just back and forth to Sunbury."
Shamokin has a sport-utility vehicle, but it doesn't have a transport van. Neither does Mount Carmel or Mount Carmel Township.
Shamokin is in the process of purchasing a new utility vehicle for the police department, perhaps a Ford Interceptor. City officials had budgeted for one year's lease payment on a new police vehicle for 2013. What vehicle they buy may now be up for discussion after Steve Bartos, city clerk, said Wednesday that he would turn to Mayor George Rozinskie about perhaps purchasing a sport utility vehicle or van to accommodate prisoner transports.
A new police vehicle is needed, Griffiths said, but a van may be more practical.
A vehicle purchase doesn't appear in the cards for Mount Carmel because the borough doesn't have the money to buy a new and equipped transport van, Mount Carmel Borough Police Chief Todd Owens said.
The departments have already spent money on additional handcuffs, shackles and transport belts in light of the change, Griffiths and Owens said.
Hollenbush said while Northumberland County can recoup constable costs through charging "return fees," local municipalities cannot.
"Not only are (county) commissioners putting the slack on municipalities, we can't even apply for reimbursements when they could. They're supposed to be representatives of the county, looking out for the county as well as municipalities, and they're not doing that," he said.
Finding cost savings
Northumberland County has beefed up its use of video conference hardware and software in recent years, remotely conducting some arraignments and court hearings in district and county courts. Owens wants that trend to continue, and he hopes more arraignments and preliminary hearings can be conducted with prisoners on camera in the county jail and attorneys, judges and witnesses on camera in district courtrooms.
A partnership is being arranged to purchase a second video-capable computer for the courtroom of Magisterial District Judge Hugh Jones, Owens said. This could save time and money and get officers back on the beat more quickly.
"Once all of the bugs get worked out of that, I'm hopefully optimistic that we can reduce our transports to half," Owens said.
Savings could also be had through professional courtesy, which is already occurring among neighboring departments.
Shamokin and Coal Township will work together on transports, Griffiths said. That means transporting a prisoner on the other department's behalf, or extending their coverage area into their neighbors'. Mount Carmel and Mount Carmel Township have a similar arrangement.
Owens, a salary employee, has performed transports to save money. Hollenbush and Griffiths have done the same.
Griffiths said city officers are helping keep costs as low as possible by taking compensatory time rather than overtime.
Hollenbush said well over four hours was spent Wednesday at district court for three prisoners. Without the transports, it would have taken about 90 minutes. Rhoades estimated the transports have extended Shamokin officer's court time to closer to six hours. If a prisoner chooses to take a preliminary hearing rather than waive charges to county court, officers' time spent in district court will increase substantially.
The new arrangements for prisoner transports can particularly pose problems for the county's smaller departments and for those further from Sunbury; Owens said the geographic makeup of the county is the biggest hurdle.
Shamokin is more than 16 miles from the county prison; Mount Carmel, 23 miles. Watsontown, about 20 miles from the prison, is already threatening a lawsuit against the county and is seeking other municipalities to join in. (See separate story.)
If a case isn't prosecuted in a timely manner, it can be lost, Owens said.
So far, Mount Carmel Borough has been lucky. The case load has been light and there haven't been any periods when the borough went without a police presence.
That, Owens said, is likely to change.
"I foresee not having anyone available to handle day-to-day business in Mount Carmel because of handling the transportation of a large amount of prisoners," he said. "Ultimately, that facet will impact Mount Carmel's safety."