Cumberland Times-News

Local News

February 15, 2014

Special commission officers independently keep the peace

­CUMBERLAND — Hundreds of special police officers throughout Maryland operate on their own, not answering to or being supervised by any law enforcement agency within their particular counties.

Eighteen such officers exist in Allegany County and four in Garrett.

Maryland law allows for a person to be so commissioned for peacekeeping and protection of certain properties.

The four special officers in Garrett County are all bailiffs within the court system.

In Allegany County, there are eight bailiffs who are special officers. In addition, four officers work for the board of education, two are with the health department, three are at unspecified government agencies and one is a business owner.

The Maryland State Police performs background checks and determines whether an applicant is approved or rejected. The city of Baltimore also issues special commissions via its police department.

MSP Capt. Dalaine Brady confirmed that police training is not required. “But the person’s employer could require training,” Brady said. Liability for a special police officer’s actions is the responsibility of the employer.

“We don’t supervise special police officers,” said Lt. H.B. Martz, commander of the MSP Cumberland Barrack. “But we respond if they call us for assistance.”

Tom Marsh is such an officer and he has called for assistance.

Marsh has been a special police officer since the mid-1970s when he purchased the Chat-N-Chew Restaurant at McCoole. He renews his commission every four years.

“The Chat-N-Chew was a rough hangout when I bought it in 1974,” Marsh said. “It had deteriorated in appearance and in clientele.”

Marsh said he cleaned up the restaurant and customers returned, but what he calls “motor heads” continued to use that section of U.S. Route 220 as a drag strip.

Marsh said a Maryland state trooper who patrolled that area introduced him to the judicial and enforcement establishment in the county and he soon obtained a special police commission.

Since then, Marsh has had the authority to pursue, apprehend and hold perpetrators. “We are a long way from the barrack (in LaVale),” he pointed out.

“Very early one morning I got a call at home that someone was throwing rocks through the windows of the old McCoole School that I owned,” Marsh said. He drove from his house to the scene, determined that two people he observed had been involved and showed his badge. He drove the pair to the Chat-N-Chew and turned off the truck.

“They took off,” Marsh said, “but I was able to grab one of them.”

Marsh said it took both hands to restrain the suspect, but one of his employees was nearby and able to get the handcuffs from Marsh’s belt and hook the man to the vehicle.

Soon, police, who had already been called, were on the scene and took over.

Marsh said his authority stays with him when he goes to other properties he owns such as apartments in Frostburg.

Although Marsh carries a firearm, he points out that being commissioned as a special police officer does not automatically allow him to pack.

“That is a whole separate process to obtain a carry permit,” he said.

Marsh doesn’t have police academy training, but believes his three years in the Marines and 15 years as a Green Beret provide him with an appropriate background.

Training is not a problem for the special police officers employed by the board of education.

“We are all former police officers,” said Bob Farrell, who guides the board’s security effort.

School security officers Steve Wininger, Brian Hughes and Timmy Stevens have been hired since the beginning of the school year.

Farrell said the job description for a school security officer requires that they be retired cops. No opportunities have arisen thus far for the new officers to use their police powers, according to Farrell.

A few years back, however, Farrell found himself in a situation where his police authority was needed.

“During a football game at Greenway Stadium — Allegany was hosting somebody — it was Halloween and some adult in a mask was saying obscene things to the cheerleaders and going into rest rooms and scaring people,” Farrell said.

Farrell kept getting complaints, but couldn’t pin down the person in the rubber monster mask.

Finally, though, the suspect was found in the bleachers on the street side of the stadium.

“I was with Principal (Mike) Calhoun and we told him to come down to us, but all we got in return were some unpleasant gestures. Eventually he came down, but wouldn’t take off the mask and that’s when he punched me in the chest.”

As Farrell subdued the man, two off-duty troopers in the stands came to assist.

Although Cumberland police officers took over and transported the suspect to the court commissioner, special police officers have the authority to make that trip if they choose.

While on duty at county schools, each officer wears a pendant badge, blue shirt with the public schools’ logo and khaki pants. They are armed, but their firearms are concealed.

Farrell is a supporter of the special police commission, but believes training should be required.

“Commissions shouldn’t be given to just anybody for just any reason,” he said. “The person should have knowledge of law. For example, what constitutes a violation? Our officers qualify twice a year with firearms through the Maryland State Police.”

Farrell said he has received a number of inquiries from other school districts, within Maryland and without, about the county’s security program.

Patrick Metty is the head bailiff for the district courts in Allegany and Garrett counties. He said the need to use police powers and physical force can break out at any time in or around the courtroom setting.

“All of our bailiffs are former cops and graduates of the police academy,” Metty said. The bailiffs/officers work security at the courthouse entrance where there is a metal detector and are present in the courtrooms as well.

Once a judge incarcerates a defendant, the police powers are used to take the person into custody and hold them for transport to the detention center.

“And I’ve had assaults break out in the courtroom, sometimes on me,” Metty said.

Although district court is often replete with uniformed, on-duty officers waiting to testify, domestic violence seems to break out when only the bailiffs are present, according to Metty.

“It can get involved,” he said. “We’ve even discovered felons in possession of weapons.”

An attempt by the Times-News to learn more about the special police officers at the Allegany County Health Department was not successful.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.

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