PA State Police Give Up Court Fight, Give Legislator Staffing Numbers

From The Tribune-Review by Paul Peirce, January 31, 2014

State Rep. Timothy S. Mahoney said a state police decision this week to release the number of troopers assigned to the Uniontown station provides a “starting point” to determine whether barracks around the state are adequately funded.

Declaring it a major victory for government transparency, Mahoney said on Friday that state police abandoned a court fight and approved his request to find out the number of troopers assigned to Fayette County.

Mahoney said there were 93 active troopers in the Uniontown complement as of Jan. 28, according to state police Lt. Col. George Bivens, deputy commissioner of operations.

Mahoney said the agency’s decision to release the number is “proof positive that they rethought the wisdom of launching a court battle” to continue blocking his request, which dates to June. The process began in the state Office of Open Records and included a decision by that office in his favor in August.

“From October through early January, the state police were digging in their heels and steadfastly maintaining that this information could and should be kept secret, in the interest of ‘public safety,’ ” said Mahoney, a South Union Democrat who was the prime House sponsor of the Open Records Law. “Something prompted a sudden change of heart. Perhaps it was a good look at the law.”

The Tribune-Review has an appeal pending before the Office of Open Records on a state police refusal to release employee staff levels at all 16 barracks and 73 state police stations. Open Records is the agency designated by the legislature to implement and enforce the state’s Right-to-Know Law and serve as a source for citizens, agencies, public officials and members of the media in obtaining public records.

A hearing on the newspaper’s appeal was held in Harrisburg on Dec. 23. A decision is expected this spring.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the decision is a victory for supporters of the Open Records Act.

“Obviously, this is good news for public access. Anytime an agency agrees to open its records, it’s a good thing,” Melewsky said. “I think Pennsylvania made the right decision. Release of these figures does not create a public risk.”

She said state police arguments against release of the staff number would not stand up under court scrutiny. “Some of the arguments were speculative at best,” she said.

Mahoney said he finds it “incredible” that in a one-page compliance with his request, dated Wednesday, Bivens noted the agency still has concerns about release of the information. State police have maintained in court filings that the release of the number could pose a security risk to the public.

“Although we have decided to provide you with the Uniontown complement, we continue to have concerns regarding the widespread release of this information. Therefore, we are respectfully asking that you not disseminate this information out of respect for the safety of our troopers and the general public,” Bivens wrote in a letter, which was provided to the Tribune-Review.

The agency maintains that someone could monitor barracks and estimate how many troopers are on duty at specific times for nefarious purposes.

But Mahoney said public dissemination of the information in time for 2013-14 budget negotiations provides a starting point for a push to fund more trooper positions, which Mahoney intends to lead.

“My only regret is that we didn’t have this information readily available a year ago, so that we could have started a critical discussion on adequate state police staffing levels to combat crime and ensure public safety,” Mahoney said.

He added that the decision to relent and provide the number of troopers represents yet another reversal of course by the Corbett administration.

Although state police did not release trooper staffing levels in any previous years at Uniontown, Mahoney believes the Fayette County station remains about “16 to 18 troopers” short of previous staffing levels.

“I’ve been out there trying to get more money for state police staffing. We have rising crime rate and drug epidemics, and the bottom line is we need more troopers,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney noted that state police have disclosed a statewide shortage of 600 troopers, openings the agency hopes to fill with new cadets.

“But when they say there are 300 in an incoming (state police cadet) class, what they don’t say is only 70 or 80 make it through,” Mahoney said. “We need more state police, more undercover, more task force personnel if we want to put a dent in and battle the heroin problem.”

Melewsky criticized state police for indicating they will continue to oppose release of staffing levels.

“It sounds like a call for more litigation, and that’s sad, because it is done at taxpayer expense. What makes this case different from other requests?” she said.

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