Somerset County police chiefs want a union lawyer to determine whether state regulations supersede the county’s outdated mutual-aid agreement.

Three weeks after Shade police refused to help a neighboring Paint Township officer during a heated domestic dispute, police chiefs said state law may allow officers to respond without liability concerns.

If that’s the case, the 14-year-old mutual-aid agreement would become moot, Paint Township police Chief Wilbert Bailey said. He spoke during a monthly countywide chiefs meeting Wednesday in the Emergency Management Office.

“Liability’s always the issue,” Windber Sgt. Rick Skiles said.

The chiefs agreed to ask a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police whether state law requires officers’ own localities to cover liability if they are injured assisting another department.

“Is it automatic that your home municipality picks up that expense?” Bailey wondered.

Whenever local police departments assist state police, the state assumes the risk, officers said.

Members of seven police departments attended the meeting along with the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff Carl Brown. Shade Township Chief Tom Holland did not.

The existing mutual-aid agreement was accepted by only 12 of 21 departments in the county. Since that time, some municipalities have formed their own police forces, while other departments have disbanded.

As it stands, municipal departments are not permitted to help neighboring departments that did not sign the agreement, even if they are the closest available officers.

And to further complicate the accord, at least two of the officials who signed the agreement are dead and others out of office, county Detective Jason Hunter pointed out.

“This is almost a historical document as far as police work. It’s passé,” Somerset officer Phil Staib said.

Late last month, Holland, apparently angered after Paint Township was awarded a contract to patrol Central City, refused to send officers for backup during the domestic dispute.

County 911 dispatchers called in officers from Hooversville and Windber instead. Windber was canceled en route after Hooversville arrived first.

Though Shade had signed the agreement, it was strictly voluntary, officials said.

If the union lawyer finds that state law takes priority, officers said they could respond without having to worry whether other departments had signed on for mutual aid.

“If a department would not assist, it would fall back to the individual jurisdiction as to why that assistance was not provided,” Bailey said.

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