On Tumultuous Falls Force, A New Chief Adds Controversy Some Question Arnie Conoline's Credentials.

Posted: February 18, 1996

Falls Township Police Chief Arnie Conoline sat in the back of the classroom, watching one of his DARE officers talk to fourth graders about respect.

``People don't like it when others call them names,'' said Officer Ron MacPherson, in the tone reserved for fidgeting schoolchildren. ``It makes them feel bad, and it hurts their feelings . . . so that's a rule in our class, that we always show each other respect.''

Conoline, who has held the highest post in the 44-member department for about two months and has found himself on the receiving end of name-calling, whispered: ``I think I need that rule down in Falls Township.''

It's not likely he'll get it any time soon.

Since he was appointed to the $62,546-a-year job, residents, police officers and others have questioned Conoline's ability to lead the force. Some object to the fact that the longtime Bucks County sheriff's deputy has never been a police officer. Others allege that Conoline, who had served on the township water and sewer authority, was hired as a political payback after voting for a township takeover of the authority.

Some of the chief's own officers said hiring Conoline was just politics as usual. Sure, they say, it's nothing personal against him - he's likable, and they hear he's got great connections. Few seem confident that he will have much impact on their daily lives, or that he can turn around a department in which controversy is routine.

``We're so used to turmoil,'' said one officer. ``People here just think it's typical.''

The controversy over his hiring is just the latest eruption in the Falls Township Police Department. The former chief left the department amid allegations that he defamed a district justice. The interim chief sued the township for age discrimination after he was passed over for the top job. That's just recent history.

``This department has been inundated with so much nonsense for so many years,'' said Conoline, 40. ``I'm not a fly-in - I've lived in Bucks County for all my life. I just want to go in there and make a God-darned difference.''

* Conoline is tired of proving himself.

He points to his 18 years in the Sheriff's Department, serving warrants in some of the ``bowels of Bucks County,'' handling ``more prisoners in one day than most officers do in a year.''

``I've spent my whole life in law enforcement,'' he said.

He believes his experience in both civil and criminal areas will help him guide the department. He credits his political background, including a stint on the Bristol Borough school board, in shaping his managerial and leadership skills.

``I want to focus on my accomplishments and what I can do for the department,'' he said, ``not how I got here.''

He bristles at the notion that his hiring had anything to do with the dissolution of the Township of Falls Authority (TOFA). He said he supported the township takeover because it was best for ratepayers.

He doesn't understand why people criticize him for not having trained as a police officer, adding that many departments hire from other law enforcement agencies. He said that the work he had done was similar and that he had paid his dues.

``I don't know why this is so unusual,'' he said. ``I don't see it as important as it's made out to be.''

Supervisor Jack Murphy said he thought Conoline was the best man for the job because of the diversity of his experience, his connections, and his personality. Murphy said the decision to hire Conoline had ``absolutely nothing'' to do with TOFA.

``Wherever he has worked, he has impressed virtually everyone,'' Murphy said. ``Given enough time, I think his whole personality will carry through.''

The supervisors required Conoline to be certified by the state Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission within a year. Conoline said he might seek a waiver in some of the courses, such as firearms training - considering he's been certified to teach that class to other officers for at least 10 years.

``The whole thing can be very frustrating,'' said Conoline with a weary sigh.

* On one of Conoline's first few days as chief, several people in the department said, he was welcomed with a bale of hay outside the front door. The meaning behind the prank? That Conoline was like a Mayberry sheriff, riding in on horseback.

In general, Conoline doesn't give much credence to his critics, the gossip, or the controversies of the past. The hay story, he said, is ``a total lie,'' aimed at embarrassing him and the department.

``This supports a lot of the nonsense you hear about this place,'' Conoline said. ``If they don't have something, they'll fabricate it.''

Officer Harvey Taylor, police union president and 17-year department veteran, said Conoline was slowly gaining support from the ranks by ``not trying to ruffle feathers.'' Many officers, Taylor said, were worried that the new chief would come in and go head-hunting - ``but so far, he hasn't.''

``Let's put it this way: He's done what he can to convince the men that he's good for the department,'' said Taylor. ``He's not doing anything to stir up disapproval. He's just letting things flow.''

Taylor predicted that both the community and other officers would eventually respect Conoline and his experience.

``At first people were skeptical, but then a lot of guys realized that you don't have to be a cop to be in that position,'' Taylor said. ``All they need to know is that he'll stand up for them. He hasn't quite convinced me that he's the ideal man for the job, but he's not the wrong guy, either.''

Others were not so accepting. One veteran Falls officer said that although the department wanted someone from outside the department, it wasn't Conoline.

``I think most guys feel that this place could turn around if [supervisors] had hired someone who could take the political aspects out,'' said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``When they hire Chief Arnie here, they're just saying we're back to the same old political hiring.''

Another officer said that many on the force didn't trust the township administration or the supervisors. And because they feel that Conoline is aligned with the township, they don't trust him, either.

``Some guys like him, some don't . . . but all of them think it's a political hire,'' said the officer, who also requested anonymity. ``As long as he leaves me alone, they can put King Kong in there.''

* Only a handful. No more than two.

Ron Smeal, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Organization, has to think hard to come up with how many of his 1,200 members were not police officers before they became chief of police.

``I'd say none, but I'll give myself a little wiggle room,'' said Smeal, who was chief of police in the Northern York County department, south of Harrisburg, for 15 years.

Robert Nardi, the civilian administrative officer for the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission, was a bit more generous. ``While it is unusual, it's far from the first time I've heard of it,'' he said.

Nardi added that chiefs in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had come from other law enforcement ranks. Municipalities sometimes hire from the CIA, the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration, and not all of those hires would necessarily be certified as police officers, Nardi said.

But Smeal said the practice was especially unwise for a department with as many skeletons as Falls. Smeal should know: In 1988, he was hired to conduct an independent review of the department under the auspices of the state Department of Community Affairs.

``I don't feel that anyone can come in and manage a law enforcement agency without having the benefit of going up through the ranks, getting the education, the training, being familiar with all the local, state and federal laws,'' said Smeal.

``It has nothing to do with the personal individual they selected,'' he said. ``It wouldn't matter if anyone short of God came in to manage a police department today, without the education and experience to put him there - it's asking more than is humanly possible.''

Conoline said he knew he had a lot to learn and spent his days meeting with officers and reviewing township police procedures. As with the weapons training, he's certified to teach many municipal police-training classes.

``I want people to know I'm a fair, honest guy,'' Conoline said. ``I care about the people in this township, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to show people that I care.''

* In the DARE classroom, Officer MacPherson was finishing up the day's lesson by answering questions. One child asked about the pepper spray MacPherson kept at his belt and inquired why someone had sprayed him while he was training to be a police officer.

``Oh, I remember that. It was just horrible,'' Conoline whispered, laughing quietly. Like every law enforcement officer certified to carry the noxious stuff, before he was allowed to carry it as a sheriff's deputy, Conoline had to be sprayed with it.

It was about a year ago, Conoline later recalled, when the deputy who trained him sprayed him in the face with the very last can.

``He told me that I didn't get a good enough hit,'' Conoline said. ``So he got another can and zapped me again.''

Similarly, in Falls, Conoline may just get used to the sting.

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