After more than one year of a consolidated Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Centre County, concerns about lack of coverage persist as county and state revenue declines.
The Philipsburg and Rockview stations consolidated into a single barracks in Benner Township in July 2018, meaning all state police in Centre County now operate out of one barracks.
Residents, the Centre County commissioners and state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, were among those who either questioned or criticized the move, citing concerns about response time, adequate coverage and fewer barracks with an increasing population. For some, those concerns haven’t been alleviated.
Conklin still feels “uncomfortable” with the arrangement more than one year after state police closed its barracks in Rush Township, according to his chief of staff, Tor Michaels.
“A one-size-fits-all approach to law enforcement coverage in the state of Pennsylvania does not work,” Michaels said. “... One (state) police barracks per county should be something we rethink.”
State police have consistently said there would not be a lack of coverage for those in the Moshannon and Bald Eagle Valley, and trooper Christopher Fox said the state police presence in Philipsburg and Rush Township has increased.
Arrests in the old Philipsburg barracks’ coverage area for assaults decreased 56% and arrests for robberies dropped from two to zero in the first year since the change, Fox said.
Over the same period, drug arrests increased 27%, disorderly conduct arrests increased 23% and burglary arrests increased 24%, he said.
But District Judge Allen Sinclair — whose office serves Philipsburg, Port Matilda, Snow Shoe and Burnside, Huston, Rush, Taylor and Worth townships — has noticed a distinct change.
“How do you take a whole barracks, which is 2 miles away from the borough, move it and expect to have the same police coverage we had before?” Sinclair said. “That’s insane. That’s not even fathomable. There’s no way that could possibly happen.”
Sinclair said he trusts the troopers and knows they do their job well, but can’t bring himself to support the logistics of the consolidation.
“It’s all wrong,” Sinclair said. “It’s just all wrong.”
County, state revenue affected as cases decline
From 2017 to 2018, county revenue generated by Sinclair’s office dropped 19%, state revenue dropped 16% and the total number of cases filed at Sinclair’s office dropped 27%. The data for 2019 — 2,468 cases — is on pace to be lower than it was in 2018, when 4,369 cases were filed.
That decrease is a “direct correlation” to the barracks closing, Michaels said on behalf of Conklin.
County revenue is generated by traffic and non-traffic citations, which are generally low-level offenses, like harassment or underage drinking. State revenue is generated by criminal cases.
Before the barracks closed, the plan was for state police officers to use their vehicle as de facto office, but “it just doesn’t work that way,” Sinclair said.
Despite adding several amenities to make it easier for troopers to work directly from his office, many still prefer making the trek to the barracks in Benner Township to complete paperwork, he said.
Sinclair does not think state police followed through with their assurances to maintain the same level of coverage.
“I’ve never agreed with it,” he said. “There’s a lot of state troopers that don’t agree with it. ... I can’t sit here and tell you nothing’s changed. Any reasonable person would say, ‘Hell no.’ There’s no way it’s the same. No way.”
The closure of the barracks also prompted the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District to hire four school resource officers and added “school officer coordinator” to Athletic Director Robert Mann’s job title. The moves cost the district $177,000, the CDT previously reported.
New police force discussed, but far off
Philipsburg Borough Council President Barbara Gette said the state police change was “concerning” at first, but she now feels comfortable because she believes the coverage “hasn’t really changed that much.”
The council has discussed creating a municipal or regional police force — something Sinclair said he would like to see if the barracks does not reopen — but there would be many hurdles to clear before making that a reality, Gette said.
Seven of the county’s 35 municipalities are policed by municipal police departments, which serve about 105,000 citizens across 156 square miles. The remaining 28 municipalities, home to about 56,500 citizens, rely on state police to cover the remaining 959 square miles, Centre County Commissioners Mike Pipe, Mark Higgins and Steve Dershem wrote in a May 2017 letter asking Gov. Tom Wolf to reconsider closing the barracks.
Though Sinclair’s office has not generated enough county revenue to fund his highest-paid secretary’s position — let alone the two other full-time positions in his office — there have been no discussions about closing his office, Pipe said Wednesday.