Mutual aid agreements in local law enforcement strike at the heart of basic small-town decency. When a neighbor is in need, those equipped to help ought to drop everything and spring to aid.
Such plans reflect the reality that small police departments rarely have enough officers on duty to handle a significant public safety incident. Small police departments regularly have one officer on-duty at a time. Outnumbered by bad guys, the good guys need all the help they can get. Mutual aid is responsible and it is required by state law.
However, taxpayers who see large police responses — inflated by representatives from communities across the region — will wonder if their tax dollars are being put to best use and whether their community is being adequately protected if their officer is in another jurisdiction.
Northumberland Borough Councilwoman Judith Groninger raised those concerns when she noted that more than twice a day in July, Northumberland police left town to respond to mutual aid calls. On balance, things ought to work out so that police receive as much help as they provide.
Police say that they need to resort to mutual aid calls more often because they are understaffed. The counter argument could be made, as well. If police have so little to do that they can drop everything and leave town to help a neighbor, how busy are they?
We support the use of mutual aid as a necessary fact of rural life. Our concern rests with the manner mutual aid is employed. All reasonable people can agree that a lone officer should not be expected to handle a dangerous situation without backup. The sticking point is determining how much assistance is needed and for how long.
Police said the responsibility for helping sort that out falls squarely on the shoulders of 911 dispatchers. Police officers can and do refuse to respond if they are dealing with local incidents that take precedence. Dispatchers have two goals when a police officer calls for help — find someone available and get them moving in a hurry.
The public has a right to know what their police are doing and why they are not around. But criminals pay little or no attention to municipal borders and those who fight crime should not be limited by the markings on government maps either.