Westminster residents know their local police as the officers who chase squirrels from houses, open mistakenly locked cars, make door-to-door visits to businesses on Main Street, and now, in the case of one detective, face accusations of trying to plant drugs on suspects.
"I don't know what really happened with that officer, but I hope it is not true," said Barbara Cheeks, who used to see drug transactions outside her store, Nana's Place, on West Main Street. "If it is, I'd look for those people who won't be prosecuted to be back on this street. That is a lot of work, four years of it, and a lot of taxpayer dollars up in the air."
The department disclosed last week that it had suspended Officer 1st Class Richard A. Ruby and that the state attorney general's office was investigating complaints filed by other officers that Ruby had tried to plant evidence twice in July.
Prosecutors have dismissed seven drug cases because of Ruby's role as investigator or witness. They said they were reviewing about 100 other cases in which he was involved, plus his previous four years of work in the department.
The accusations against Ruby place the Westminster police in an unfamiliar spotlight. The police had attracted positive attention in recent months for a series of undercover investigations and drug raids aimed at cleaning up neighborhoods where residents complained of open-air narcotics markets. In August, more than 90 state and local law enforcement officials swept through Sullivan and Wimert avenues, arresting 20 people in four apartments that police said were centers for drug use and sales.
"They were some really hard-looking people; I used to call them pit bulls," said Candy Moore, referring to groups of men who used to gather under a brick archway in the first block of Pennsylvania Avenue. "They used to be here, but for some reason, they've gone."
In addition to the well-publicized drug raids, officers are more likely to respond to calls about backyard snakes or fast-food workers throwing potatoes at a brick wall.
"As a department, we still do a lot of things that other departments just don't do anymore," said Sgt. Misty Sanders. "I guess we're still trying to hold onto that hometown flavor."
The city has 40 officers, many of whom spend an hour of each shift on foot patrol, walking a sector of the 5 1/2-square-mile city. On the day shift, one officer is assigned full time to foot patrol in the downtown business district.
Merchants and residents said they frequently see and appreciate officers patrolling downtown streets. The accusations against one officer don't necessarily reflect badly on the department, many said.
"It's hard to believe they would do something like that, that a police officer would plant drugs on someone just so they'll get caught," said Wayne Hively, vice president at Westminster Bank on East Main Street. "I can understand they get frustrated when someone gets off who they know are guilty, but in my way of thinking, someone's been watching too much TV."
Most of the people eating lunch Friday at a Westminster soup kitchen said they knew of the allegations about Ruby.
Randy Dailey recalled the frigid night Ruby found him and several others huddled in an abandoned building on Main Street.
"It was about 3 a.m., and he told us to stay until morning," Dailey said. "He sounded like he cared about the people there."
Despite the department's community efforts, several young mothers pushing strollers along Main on a balmy afternoon wondered why they saw homeless people loitering and no police officers patrolling the city's downtown.
"I don't see police walking beats, and that concerns me as a mother of three," said Cheryl Pressley. "I would not walk through Westminster alone at night."
Michele Cosentini of Finksburg and a neighbor, Brandi Ecker, came into town with their children. But, the women were a little skittish about venturing too far from the business district.
"We walked up to the west end and felt nervous, so we came back," said Cosentini. "I haven't seen any police walking or driving. I would like to see more of them on the streets. I would feel safer."
Merchants, though, say they see officers patrolling regularly.
"They do a great job. I see them walking the beat -- either that or by patrol car," said Tony D'Eugenio, owner of Giulianova Groceria on East Main Street. "They're here when I want them. They're always at my beck and call."