WHEELING - Support among City Council members for Wheeling's ordinance requiring that two police officers ride in every city patrol car seems to have eroded since the issue last ignited controversy about three years ago.
Councilman Robert "Herk" Henry - a former municipal police officer and a vocal opponent of repealing the law - still believes the ordinance should remain on the books. He expressed that opinion following Tuesday's City Council meeting, during which members heard first reading of legislation calling for a citywide election to decide if the 40-year-old law that Wheeling residents voted into effect in 1972 should stand.
At its next meeting Aug. 21, council members plan to vote on whether to put the proposed repeal of that ordinance on the Nov. 6 general election ballot as a municipal issue.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Charlie Ballouz of Wheeling expresses his support Tuesday for the repeal of a city ordinance requiring that two police officers ride in every patrol car. Listening, from left, are Councilman David Miller, City Solicitor Rosemary Humway-Warmuth and Councilmen Don Atkinson and Eugene Fahey.
Henry was one of three council members firmly opposed to removing the two-officer requirement back in 2009, when two residents' effort to force the issue onto the ballot by petition led to controversy, litigation and, ultimately, no change to the longstanding policy. But another, Vernon Seals, is no longer on council after he declined to seek re-election this year - and with a new police chief in place, Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge now believes it may be time for a change.
"It's time to bring it up again and let the people decide. ... Women are allowed to change their minds, so I've changed my mind on the two-man cruiser," said Delbrugge, who as the wife of a former police officer was a staunch advocate of the two-officer mandate during the 2009 debate.
Councilman Don Atkinson said he still supports repealing the law and giving Schwertfeger more flexibility in assigning patrols.
"Let the chief make the decision," Atkinson said. "That's what it boils down to. ... That's why we hired him."
Mayor Andy McKenzie previously said Wheeling is the only city in the country with a two-officer-per-cruiser requirement. But Henry remains concerned about officer safety and believes there's strength in numbers.
"A person will think twice if you have another man on the other side of a car," he said of criminals who may be contemplating violence.
Henry also believes a single officer responding to a call of gunshots fired may wait for backup to arrive before inserting himself into a potentially dangerous situation - costing time, which he said the current law helps avoid.
"They're right there, right now," he said of the backup provided by two-officer patrols.
During Tuesday's council meeting, downtown resident Charlie Ballouz expressed his support for letting residents decide the issue. He said much has changed in Wheeling over the past 40 years and agrees that Schwertfeger should be allowed to determine how his department is run.
"The chief needs to have his hands untied ... and I believe if you put this before the people, you would find that they are willing to do that," said Ballouz.
In 2008, George Jones and William Hefner began circulating a petition to have the matter put to a vote, an effort that received strong support from then-chief Kevin Gessler. After Jones and Hefner gathered a total of 2,469 signatures - exceeding the total of 10 percent of the city's registered voters required to put an ordinance on the ballot - City Council by August 2009 was prepared to hold the election apparently required by law.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 filed suit, however, seeking to have the petition declared invalid. Circuit Judge Arthur Recht sided with the union, ruling in November of that year that the city never should have accepted the petition because the signatures of Jones and Hefner on each petition page were not sufficient to meet the city charter's requirement that an "affidavit" accompany the petition, swearing that each residents' signature was made in the circulators' presence.