These are challenging times for the Mercersburg Police Department.
Residents and businesspeople have filled meeting rooms to air grievances about commercial truck inspections, officers’ community involvement and accusations of police tailing drivers without cause. The Mercersburg Borough Council developed a new committee and invited Tuscarora Area Chamber of Commerce involvement to look at the issues.
At the helm of the police department are Mercersburg Mayor James C. Zeger and Police Chief John D. Zechman.
Zeger, who became mayor in April 2003, last week canceled the truck inspection program.
“I hope by not having the truck inspections anymore, we can settle down as a community and get back to working on the needs of the community. On both sides of this debate, you’ve had feathers that have been ruffled and they need to be put back in place,” he said.
A Pennsylvania State Police retiree, Zechman took over as Mercersburg’s police chief in 2009. He and Zeger recently sat down for an interview.
How would you like the community to perceive your department?
Zechman: As a community policing department. We have good officers who have integrity and are doing their job. They’re not sitting in the station. They’re out in the borough enforcing the law, assisting citizens, doing investigations.
Zeger: I’d like to see it known as a very professional organization with integrity. I personally believe we have the best police department we’ve ever had in Mercersburg. It’s always a challenge in Mercersburg because of the smallness of it to get quality officers, but because of the chief, a lot of them want to come to get trained under him because of his valuable experience.
There is no morale problem in our police department. We used to have one. Now, they come and do their jobs. That’s part of the problem a little bit. Some lackadaisy from before is now being done in a professional manner, and that has a little bit of getting used to. I do think they do a lot of friendly stuff. They do a lot of things that don’t get said, don’t get told in the paper. ... Our policemen are always on call to assist and help and do service in the community.
What are some of the challenges associated with small-town policing?
Zechman: I think one of the challenges here in Mercersburg is knowing what the police department was like before and now having a department that enforces the law. When I say “enforce,” we give a lot of warnings also. We have a lot of contacts with the public in issuing citations, issuing warnings, issuing faulty equipment cards, stopping and talking with people on the street.
I think part of the problem is that we cover one square mile. I’m told we have about six miles of roadway, so I get complaints that “officers are following me, trying to get me to do something wrong.” Well, we don’t have a very big area to cover, and I’m sure at times it may seem that way. It isn’t our policy to follow someone around intentionally.
Now, if someone gets our eye — maybe they cross the center line but not enough to issue a citation or pull them over for a warning, but maybe just crossed it slightly — we may follow to see if there is a problem, but if there isn’t one, we will be peeling off at some point.
Zeger: A lot of the complaints we’re hearing are complaints that are not necessarily just yesterday, it’s like five years ago or six years ago. (This issue with the) truck inspections, it gave them a chance to vent their frustrations.
I’ll just speak personally. I don’t know anybody who loves to get pulled over by the police. You have that normal reaction.
I want our officers to be courteous. They have a job to do, and they’ve been trained to do their job. If someone who gets pulled over gets feisty and gets in their face, they react accordingly, which they have to do. An officer stopping someone late at night is in a dangerous situation. They have to be careful and take safety (precautions) to guarantee their safety as well as the people in the car. A lot of people don’t want to admit to their fault. It’s always someone else’s problem.
One of the problems that police have is when they do give somebody a break, someone else wants to know why they didn’t get it. It’s a matter of trying to help the people in the town and at the same time enforcing the laws. For all of us, we live by laws. If we don’t live by them, you’re going to have to pay the price of breaking the law.
Zechman: Some residents of the area surrounding Mercersburg don’t understand how the area is broken up as far as who polices what. If it’s a criminal complaint (from outside the borough), we tell them we don’t cover their area and we make a referral to the state police. ... People don’t understand the difference. They see ‘Mercersburg police’ and know they have a Mercersburg address. ... People see a police car and they think it’s us, or they get pulled over by the state police and they think it’s us, or they get followed by the state police and they think it’s us.
Zeger: Sometimes when you read the paper or you hear someone talking, you’d think everyone in Mercersburg doesn’t like the police. Well, I’m here to say a lot of people in Mercersburg really do like the police. The reason for that is unfortunately we’ve had a lot of burglaries in town and drug-related stuff. We have one house that has had $100,000 worth of stuff stolen out of it, and we’re making progress (in the investigation). In fact, we cracked one (theft) ring where there were 30 or 40 different charges. Those people aren’t upset with the good work being done. It’s the intuitiveness of our policemen that get these things solved. ... I get calls from people who are embarrassed by the present situation and that’s why I stopped (truck inspections). But they don’t complain about the work of the police. In fact, they thank them for doing it. We have these open meetings and we allow people to speak, but we don’t do the rebuttal.
What was your reaction to the negative portrayal of the department in meetings?
Zeger: Well, it’s wrong. ... (Regarding comments about having more officers per capita than other communities), if you take 168 hours, which is what is in a week, divided by 40 hours, you need over four full-time police officers. We have two full-time police officers and six present part-time officers, with one of our officers in Kuwait fighting for his country. If you have three full-time officers or more, you need to go to the Civil Service laws and have a Civil Service commission. We don’t care to do that. ... We have to be competitive, but we pay them less than the average (rate) of the county and with part time, we don’t have to pay benefits, so who is saving the taxpayers dollars? Who is doing the right thing? When they bang on council and say it’s a waste of money, that’s far from the truth. Because we have part time, those officers on many shifts are really working by themselves. They’re really working for 1,611 (people), which was the 2009 Census. They’re out there working for everybody. It’s not like Chambersburg, Shippensburg, Greencastle or Waynesboro, where they have three shifts around the clock and have full-time officers on each one of those shifts, plus part time. We don’t have that for the reasons I stated. For me, it makes sense to do it the way we do it and it saves money. ... Do you like to hear anything negative? No. It hurts to hear all the negativity. A lot of people are being hurt and it’s not necessary.
What is your 10-year vision for this department?
Zeger: For me, I hope it continues to be a professional organization. We’re working toward accreditation, which means procedures have to be put in place for everything from how you take care of evidence to juvenile interrogations to a lot of different things. The last time there was an evaluation of the department was back in 1992, I believe. It’s time to have another evaluation.
We found some things that were left go too long and there were no procedures how to do some things, and the chief has spent hours and the officers have spent hours working on procedures. We live in a legal world and when you don’t do things by the book, someone is going to sue you. ... Can you improve community relations? Sure, you can always work on that. Sometimes just one or two people being disgruntled about something can flare that up, particularly if you get the ear of the press. You have to deal with that a little bit.
Have you talked about some of these concerns people have, either in private or in public?
Zeger: We talk about them all the time. We have great communication. I probably come up here every day (to borough hall) to spend some time. I don’t always agree with the chief.
Zechman: Nor I with him.
Zeger: But I respect him very much. I think he’s doing a wonderful job. Our policemen are very decent and don’t warrant all the criticism. We have a process (to file) a complaint, which was set up by the chief. People with a complaint should come and do it the way you have to.
Zechman: I find Mercersburg is unique in the way things travel around Mercersburg by word of mouth and by social media. I don’t read the blogs, but I have people come up and tell me what they read in the blogs.
One example is, we had an accident on the square last week. It was dispatched to me as a two-car accident with possible injuries. From the time I was notified to the time I was on the scene was seven minutes. I assume it happened before I was dispatched. I understand someone in the borough put out (through social media) that it took police 20 minutes to get there. ... From the time it occurred or from when I was dispatched? These are things people are exposed to, and they get upset and maybe rightfully so, ... but there’s a lot of social media out there and things that are stretched quite a bit.
We have a system that was nonexistent before. If someone has a complaint with the police department, we have a form for them to fill out. We do an investigation. We’ve had forms filled out. Some of them are frivolous. Some of them we take a look at and say we don’t know, like when we have forms for something that happened a year and a half ago. It’s better when it’s fresh. We have made changes from complaints we received.