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Rural Pa. township disbanded police department after chief got a new job

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our north-central Pa. newsletter, Talk of the Town, at spotlightpa.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.

BELLEFONTE — When their longtime police chief stepped down, Sweden Township supervisors disbanded the municipal department and joined a growing list of rural Pennsylvania municipalities that rely on State Police for law enforcement.

In a 2-1 vote late last year, the supervisors voted to dissolve the local police force to free up tens of thousands of dollars to replace aging equipment and fund local road maintenance.

With a State Police barracks based in the township and troopers already patrolling part-time due to the township department’s limited staff, the decision to disband — though still tough to make — made sense financially, Jonathan Blass, who chairs the board of supervisors, told Spotlight PA.

Bryan Phelps, who served as police chief for more than 20 years, was set to be sworn in as a district judge in Potter County, and the department’s three part-time officers had also found other full-time work.

The supervisors didn’t relish the idea of starting from scratch. Plus, state law does not require municipalities to maintain a local police force.

Sweden Township operates with a budget of roughly $280,000. Shuttering the police department will allow the township to replace an almost 40-year-old road grader and fund other construction projects, Blass said.

“Every time a trooper leaves or drives to the barracks, they have to drive through Sweden Township,” Phelps told Spotlight PA. “I get what the supervisors are saying.”

Still, Phelps said he was slightly disappointed and worried about how the void could affect emergency response times and the enforcement of local ordinances, which State Police don’t monitor.

“You can’t be everywhere at one time, and neither can the State Police,” he said.

None of the township’s 870 residents attended the Dec. 27 special meeting where the supervisors discussed the police department’s future. Some learned of the news through a Jan. 3 Facebook post announcing the decision.

Sweden Township Supervisor Kevin Saulter, who serves as vice chair, did not respond to interview requests for this story. According to meeting minutes, he voted against closing the police department and moved to table the vote.

Blass said he hasn’t heard from residents yet about the decision.

Sweden Township’s police department received between 50 to 75 calls each month, Phelps said. Most involved speeding complaints, car crashes, or ordinance violations. It also provided coverage for nearby Roulette Township and Ulysses borough, which contracted with Sweden Township’s police department for services.

The borough ended its contract with Sweden Township in July 2022.

Roulette Township paid Sweden Township between $2,000 to $3,300 for part-time coverage each month, Nita Spencer, a supervisor, told Spotlight PA. State Police also patrolled the area.

In March 2023, Sweden Township canceled that contract despite efforts in Roulette Township to continue the agreement.

“They said it cost them more than what we were paying them, so they were not interested in renewing our contract,” Spencer said, recounting the meeting.

It was a blow to Roulette because the municipal police officers helped enforce local codes such as junk ordinances prohibiting residents from letting trash pile up in their yards or having overgrown lawns, Spencer said.

All Pennsylvania taxpayers help fund State Police, and municipalities don’t pay more when they decide against having their own police department. But state troopers don’t monitor compliance with municipal codes, so communities that disband their forces must grapple with how to ensure residents follow local rules.

“We in the township cannot financially start up a police department on our own, so we’re scraping to figure out what we can do to enforce our ordinances,” Spencer said.

Some municipalities opt to employ someone who monitors for ordinance violations — similar to parking enforcement officers — but that still has costs. Sweden Township is still working on a transition plan, Phelps said.

More than half of the 2,560 municipalities in Pennsylvania rely on State Police to patrol their communities. Over the past decade, there’s been a “slight increase” in the number of communities receiving full-time coverage from troopers, Adam Reed, a spokesperson, told Spotlight PA in an email.

According to data shared by Reed, state troopers provided full-time coverage to 1,303 municipalities in 2023, up from 1,281 in 2013.

Last year, 840 municipalities had full-time coverage through a local police department. State Police provided part-time coverage in 417 communities, according to the data.

Before Sweden Township’s department shut down, State Police responded to calls when local officers weren’t available, Reed said. Now, the township is included in full-time zone assignments, and residents should expect the “professional police services they expect and deserve,” he added.

State Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster) has long proposed enacting an annual service fee paid by Pennsylvania municipalities that rely on State Police coverage instead of local law enforcement officers. He said pushback to the proposal typically comes from areas where officials worry about increasing property taxes to fund operations. But a fee means they “chip in something,” Sturla told Spotlight PA.

“It’s not even leveling the playing field,” Sturla said. “It’s making it not as steep a slope.”

He argued the charge would support statewide law enforcement operations and provide fairness to communities with municipal police departments that also pay to support State Police.

“Explain to me why if I live in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, I have some God-given right to not pay taxes and get all my services for free,” Sturla said.

While former Gov. Tom Wolf backed such a fee, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has not. During his budget proposal Tuesday, Shapiro suggested earmarking $16 million of the roughly $1.7 billion allocated for State Police to fund four additional new cadet classes to increase the number of troopers across the commonwealth.

SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at spotlightpa.org/donate/statecollege. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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