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Middletown Police Department disbanding? Mayor calls union statement 'ill-timed and misinformed'

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/17/19

Middletown borough officials were in damage control mode during Tuesday’s council meeting, following a bombshell announcement posted on Facebook by the police association that the borough is …

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Middletown Police Department disbanding? Mayor calls union statement 'ill-timed and misinformed'

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Middletown borough officials were in damage control mode during council’s July 16 meeting, following a bombshell announcement posted on Facebook by the police association that the borough is considering disbanding its police department.

The post, made public by the association five hours before the 7 p.m. start of the meeting, urged citizens come out as “we have received word that the future of your police department may be in jeopardy,” according to the association post.

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READ MORE: Steelton mayor not aware of any talks with Middletown about police regionalization

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“The topic of contracting services has resurfaced, which would require the borough to disband the current police force and to rely on a neighboring municipality or State Police coverage,” the association post said. “Both would not supply the borough with the level of service which is now provided to the citizens of Middletown borough.”

“This was brought up a few years ago and the citizens were very vocal and supportive of the police department and we do not know why this is again being revisited. Please come out and support your local police department,” the post read.

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READ MORE: Middletown police calls up 12 percent, department under budget for 2019

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Mayor James H. Curry III, who is responsible for the police department, was not present at the start of the July 16 council meeting. He showed up later during the meeting and addressed the issue with reporters afterward.

Curry called the association post “ill-timed and misinformed” and “an attempt to stir up emotion in the community. It really doesn’t need that type of theatrics at this point.”

Curry, the mayor since January 2014, said he has never supported disbanding the police department, or bringing in the State Police to cover Middletown.

It is Curry who is “ill-timed” in seeking to disband the borough police department just two years after residents made it clear they were opposed to the idea, a representative of the Fraternal Order of Police said in response to Curry’s comments.

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READ MORE: In 2017, residents spoke out vs. Middletown police deal with Lower Swatara

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“Why is the mayor seeking to do this again when the community came out and rallied behind them and said no, we want our police?” Craig McGovern of the FOP told the Press & Journal, referring to public reaction to the borough in 2017 seeking a proposal from Lower Swatara Township to contract out to the township the providing of police services in Middletown.

While the post appears on the association Facebook page, the local association officers shortly after the July 16 council meeting began referring media questions to McGovern and the FOP.

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READ MORE: Commissioner Pries says it’s up to municipalities to handle police department consolidation

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Asked what the association based the Facebook post on, McGovern said that an association member had received a call from a borough resident saying that Curry was “involved in negotiation with Steelton borough” regarding the providing of police services in Middletown.

Asked directly after the meeting whether Middletown is holding talks with Steelton regarding police services, Curry did not confirm or deny it.

“I can represent that I have had discussions with many different municipalities over the years” regarding providing police services in Middletown, Curry said. “I think you can fall victim to a Middletown rumor mill, or you can take me at my word. I will listen to a proposal from anyone, including Steelton.”

McGovern said the union doesn’t know for a fact whether Curry is holding talks with Steelton.

“We only know what we were alerted to, that he was doing this. They have never come out and said they are not doing this, just that (there is) not an official proposal on the table,” he said.

McGovern pointed to a report given by Middletown police at the same July 16 council meeting, saying that the department has 12 percent more calls for service so far this year compared to 2018, while having spent just 43 percent of the funding allotted to the department for all of 2019.

“They are operating under budget. Whatever they are doing, they are doing a heckuva job, and yet you have a mayor trying to get rid of them,” McGovern said.

Middletown Police Detective Wade Bloom, an officer of the police association who was present at the July 16 council meeting, referred questions to the FOP.

Lloyd statement

In Curry’s absence, Council President Angela Lloyd opened the meeting by reading this statement:

“Before we begin the meeting, I would like to address a recent post on social media by the Middletown Police Officers Association. At this time no deal has been presented to council for review or discussion.

“If at some point in the future a deal is presented, it would be our fiduciary responsibility to review (that) offer,” Lloyd continued. “No decision would be made without discussions with the police association professionals and of course the residents.

“As council president on behalf of council, it is disappointing that a Facebook post would be made without a conversation with the borough,” Lloyd added. “We encourage any future questions to be directed to the borough manager.”

Lloyd responding to a text message from the Press & Journal said council had taken no action authorizing Curry to enter into discussions with another municipality regarding the providing of police services in Middletown.

Former councilor speaks out

Only one resident — former Councilor Rachelle Reid — raised the issue during the public comment period following Lloyd reading her statement.

The post might not have led to many residents attending the meeting, but members of the police department were there in force.

At least eight officers — including association leadership — were in the audience.

Reid in her comments said she had “heard” what is being discussed is “a combination of either we are going to disband or regionalize the police department, or we’re going to utilize the chief of police from Steelton to administer the police department.”

Reid made clear she was not a fan of any of those options.

“We raised the taxes to cover outfitting the police with SUVs, sidearms and semi-automatic rifles. Why would we even be considering regionalizing these guys again?” Reid asked, referring to the last time the borough had pursued the question of regionalization or contracting out back in 2017. “We never can make this work.”

“What is it? These guys are great, these guys do an excellent job, and every time you turn around you want to mess with them,” Reid said. “I think it’s disgraceful. These guys put their life on the line every day they put that uniform on. No one in this room but them will do that. I don’t see anybody else getting up and wanting to go to the police academy, go through the training, carry a gun and walk into a door where they don’t know who’s on the other side and if they have a gun. Leave these guys alone.”

Lloyd responded by reading her earlier statement, but adding for emphasis “I cannot stress that enough” that any deal presented to council would have to involve discussions between council and the police and “of course the residents.”

‘Fiduciary obligation’

Curry referred reporters to comments he made in 2017, when the borough was pursuing contracting out police services in Middletown to Lower Swatara Township.

“As an elected official, I have a fiduciary obligation to always consider any option that is put forth,” Curry said. “If there is an option available that accomplishes the three pillars that I have always had — if there was an option that gave me the same or better level of service, protected the jobs of my officers, and it also would save me money — I would consider it. If it doesn’t meet those three pillars, you don’t even have my consideration.”

Asked if this means the borough is “shopping around” for alternatives to the providing of police services in Middletown, the mayor responded: “It means that I will listen to any proposal.”

Of nine residents who spoke during a public comment period during a special meeting Feb. 15, 2017, none spoke in favor of contracting out with Lower Swatara, according to minutes of the Feb. 15 meeting posted on the borough website.

‘Always worth exploring’

If the potential exists for Middletown and Steelton to save their respective residents money by working closer together when it comes to providing police services, why would the Middletown police association oppose such an idea, McGovern was asked.

“It’s always worth exploring,” McGovern said. “However you just tried to disband them two years ago and the public came out and said, we want our police. Why not come to the public and why not put it out at a council meeting, and let the public know you are looking into doing this, as opposed to some back-room deal behind everybody’s back where nobody knows what is going on — especially when two years ago you tried this and the public said no.”

Curry said there is no point in people getting worked up, because there is nothing to get worked up over.

“This is the same thing that happened last time,” he said. “People got all in a tizzy and thought that the sky was falling because there was simply a discussion on whether or not it can benefit multiple municipalities.”

“Until there is a formal proposal on the table, it means nothing,” Curry said. “You can’t say you are for or against something if it doesn’t exist.”