Arrest of Altoona cop raises troubling questions

Altoona residents should have no doubts that Blair County’s criminal justice system will handle fairly and properly the case involving city police Sgt. Matthew S. Starr.

Last week, state police filed 10 felony charges and a misdemeanor theft count against the veteran officer for allegedly falsifying records and stealing thousands of dollars from the city — and, thus, from city taxpayers.

Although Starr must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, his situation, as outlined in the charges, paints an abhorrent picture of a previously good, trusted public servant who, for whatever reason, deviated from the path of what is right and honest.

City residents, who respect the skill and expertise of department officers, obviously have been taken aback by the alleged misconduct that has been exposed.

However, residents shouldn’t allow the Starr case to erode their long-held faith and trust in the department’s skills and integrity.

As bad as the Starr situation seems to be, there are no grounds for suspicion and distrust regarding the department in general.

The city owes a debt of gratitude to the state police personnel who carried out the investigation, for apparently not leaving any proverbial stones unturned.

Now that charges have been filed, it will be the responsibility of the court system to ensure that justice prevails for all of those impacted by the case, and that Starr receives fair treatment, just like anyone else brought before the courts is entitled to receive.

But all that said, attention needs to shift to the city police department, going forward.

It has to be puzzling to city residents that Starr was able to perpetuate his alleged wrongdoing for so long before anyone noticed that something might be amiss.

If the alleged wrongdoing had been carried out for only a period of just a couple months, residents would understand why Starr had only now been arrested.

That wasn’t the case.

It’s believed that Starr’s alleged wrongdoing took place between 2012 and this year, which indicates persistent weak or inadequate department controls.

A solid system of routine verification involving all departmental operations should have been in place long before Starr’s first alleged step outside the bounds of proper and legal conduct.

It was stunning for the city’s people to have to hear descriptions such as “double dipping,” “padding his paycheck,” “approving his own overtime,” “soliciting money improperly,” “funneling money into his own pocket” and “money laundering,” in connection with the officer’s case.

Likewise, city residents no doubt were troubled when they learned that Starr’s troubles might be rooted in heavy casino gambling and huge gambling debts that he incurred.

Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling, who in February asked the state police to investigate Starr because of suspected irregularities in the way he handled several checks, rightly characterized the current situation as “a very difficult time” for the police department.

She said that despite what is believed to have happened, the department’s men and women can be trusted to continue serving the public in a professional manner.

But city council members and Freehling have a big task ahead of them — to evaluate department safeguards and fix whatever holes in those safeguards that might exist.

Starr’s case would not have become so huge, consuming and troubling if adequate controls had existed at the time when Starr first began engaging in his troubling conduct.