Public keeping a close eye on Plummer case

The aggravated-assault case against Altoona Police patrol officer Matthew J. Plummer has remained a topic of significant public interest, as evidenced by the comments of Mirror readers in letters to the editor, as well as in the discussion among city residents that the case has spawned.

That’s understandable. Police officers should not be the ones facing criminal charges.

But Plummer’s predicament has brought up an issue that this city appears to be addressing properly.

That revolves around the premise that police officers, although they should be held to a higher standard by virtue of their positions, are human beings who have private lives of their own and should not be subject to unfair restrictions.

That’s why city Police Chief Janice Freehling was correct early-on when she rejected any notion of a policy change to restrict the actions of off-duty officers.

And, Freehling’s decision was rightly backed up by City Councilman Mike Haire, who pointed out that public employees have freedoms and rights as citizens to do “pretty much what they want on their time off, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their jobs.”

Haire doubts that any such restrictions would stand up in court, and he’s probably right.

Still, people everywhere want to be confident in their police protection, not have doubts about the character of the individuals hired to uphold the law, ensure their safety and otherwise protect the public interest.

Even after the Plummer case has passed through the criminal justice system, and even if Plummer is exonerated, the stigma on the police department stemming from the case isn’t likely to dissipate completely.

That has been the experience with the case involving two Altoona officers, one who currently is serving prison time, for an incident in 2010 at a local bar.

Plummer, 27, was arrested by the Hanover Township, Washington County, police after a concert Sept. 7 at the First Niagara Pavilion.

He is accused of punching a man who “mooned” a bus carrying police personnel and their families. The man also might have thrown a bottle that allegedly struck the bus.

Plummer was jailed for a short time after the incident before posting bond. According to an article in the Sept. 12 Mirror, a preliminary hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday before Magisterial District Judge Gary H. Havelka of Washington County.

Since the incident, Plummer has been assigned to desk duty. After a city council executive session on Sept. 10, interim City Manager Omar Strohm read a statement indicating that the city will take “appropriate action” after disposition of the criminal charges.

Officials didn’t specify what consequences were being considered.

But the bottom line remains: This city isn’t trying – and shouldn’t be trying – to slap restrictions on police officers’ off-duty time.

At the same time, police officers, off duty as well as on duty, must remain cognizant of the fact that their individual actions reflect not only on their department but also on their fellow officers.

As the upcoming court proceedings near, members of the public are continuing to judge Plummer’s actions on the basis of their own individual perceptions of what they feel is – or should be – acceptable police conduct.

That’s to be expected.

Like the case involving the 2010 bar incident, recollections of the Plummer case will resurface in the unfortunate event a police officer of this city ever again faces charges of performing duties in a way contrary to proper conduct, or acting improperly while off the clock.