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Voters to Decide Wheeling’s Two-Man Cruiser Law

October 21, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Wheeling voters on Nov. 6 will decide whether to keep a 40-year-old law on the books that requires two police officers per patrol car.

City Council this summer, by a 6-1 vote, agreed to place a citywide referendum on the law on the general election ballot, with Councilman Robert "Herk" Henry the lone dissenter.

The Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 has filed a motion to stop the vote, claiming city leaders made procedural errors in how they voted on the matter.

Overall support for the law on council has waned since the issue last was debated at length about three years ago, and Mayor Andy McKenzie has pointed out Wheeling is believed to be the only city in the United States with such a requirement.

Henry, a former city police officer and longtime proponent of the law, remains convinced that four eyes in a cruiser are better than two.

"It's safer for the people and it's also safer for the policemen. ... The way people are carrying guns anymore, you really have to watch yourself with just one guy," he said the night council voted on the measure.

Henry said people have told him there's less crime in the community today than there has been in the past. But if that's the case, he said, there wouldn't be a need for the increased police presence in places such as schools and courthouses that's taken place in recent years.

City Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said while he doesn't have a firm stance on whether solo or dual police patrols are more effective, he would prefer to have the flexibility to allocate resources as he sees fit.

"I'm not overly passionate one way or the other. Certainly, if I were making the decision, I would rescind it," Schwertfeger said.

Schwertfeger, who began his duties in June, said he's willing to discuss the issue with any resident who wants to initiate the conversation.

According to a sample ballot, the public vote will be on an ordinance to rescind and repeal the law. That means a vote on election day for adoption of the ordinance is a vote against the two-man cruiser law, while a vote against adoption of the ordinance is a vote in favor of the existing policy.

If the ordinance is approved, no reduction of Wheeling's 85-officer police force is being considered, City Manager Robert Herron has said.

"We'd like to increase the exposure we have in the community," he said. "We do have an excellent police department, and I think the new chief with that flexibility can do a lot more than what we're currently doing, making an already safe city even safer."

Schwertfeger has said the issue is one that fascinates him, coming from a police department in Albemarle County, Va., that covers more than 700 square miles and assigns one officer to each cruiser.

Schwertfeger said situations may arise that warrant assigning two officers to a cruiser, but lifting the requirement will allow him to create specialized units to deal with traffic safety and parking issues that can frustrate residents.

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