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Politics & Government

Pressure Mounts For Wolf’s Top Cop

Mary Wilson

Col. Marcus Brown is an outsider wearing an insider’s uniform, and it’s threatening to sideline his career with the Wolf administration.

Brown, Gov. Tom Wolf’s pick to run the Pennsylvania State Police, didn’t come up through the ranks. His 25 years in law enforcement started with the Baltimore city police. Most recently, he led the Maryland State Police. During an interview last month in his office, Brown said in most of the law enforcement agencies where he’s worked, he’s dressed for the part.  

“In my eyes, it honors the organization that we’re in," he said. "It honors the men and women that are working every single day out on the road fighting crime. If they’re out there in the uniform of the organization, the top people within the organization should be doing the same thing.”

But not long after Brown took office in late January, a Facebook page popped up called “He didn’t earn it He shouldn’t wear it.” Current and retired state troopers had a place to vent. One post says the PSP uniform, on Brown, amounts to “stolen valor.” A Twitter account followed: @didntearnit.

For more than a month, it was just a social media campaign.

Until last week, when a retired trooper from western Pennsylvania drove to Brown’s neighborhood and put up two yard signs. They read: “Marcus Brown didn’t earn it” and “Marcus Brown don’t wear it.” The ex-trooper waited. And when the acting commissioner’s car drove up, and Brown got out to remove both signs the same retiree was there, rolling videotape.

The Hampden Township police chief began an investigation into whether Brown committed a theft for taking the signs. But later it was reported the same chief, another retired trooper, had posted on the Facebook page, saying he would do everything in his power to stop Brown from wearing the uniform. The Cumberland County district attorney has now taken over the investigation.

If the uniform is the trademark of a state trooper’s institutional identity, the Pennsylvania State Police academy is where that identity is built. The 27-week training intensive is part college, part boot camp.

“You live with the guys, you sleep with them, you sweat with them, you fight with them, and you really build a strong bond, and a strong camaraderie,” said John Bey, now chief of police in Middletown, Dauphin County.

Bey was with the Pennsylvania State Police for 25 years and spent a good chunk of that time working at the main state police academy in Hershey. That training experience is what sets state troopers apart from city cops in Pennsylvania, he said.

“I don’t know that I could make an outsider understand,” Bey said. “I’m sure some people are very flippant about it. Like, ‘Eh, whats the difference,’ you know… the average person may not appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to put that uniform on.”

Brown, for his part, apologized for taking the yard signs in a written statement, saying he was just trying to look out for his family.

But the headache has not subsided.

The state Senate gets to sign off on the Pennsylvania State Police commissioner job with a confirmation vote. Senate Republican leaders last week asked Wolf to show Brown the door. They said that business with the signs showed poor judgment on Brown’s part.

“For the top cop, that’s just not good enough,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) at the Harrisburg Press Club this week. “You’ve got to make good decisions.”

The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, silent on the uniform spat until now, wrote to the governor this week advising him to drop Brown’s nomination. The five-member board cast a unanimous vote of “no confidence,” the letter said.

The governor has said Brown is well-qualified to run the Pennsylvania State Police and he’s within his rights to wear the uniform. Though Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan acknowledges there is a criminal investigation hanging out there.

“If Col. Brown is charged, then he’s going to have to obviously review that situation,” Sheridan said, “and it’s possible that he could change his mind, if that were to be the case.”

The uproar now pits the Pennsylvania State Police against a governor who’s proposed a big increase in the agency’s ranks — to give it the highest number of active troopers in a decade.  

“I love the fact that the troopers in the organization have pride in their uniform,” said Brown last month. “I love the fact that they have pride in their organization. But I am not the first commissioner to wear the uniform that’s come from the outside. Other commissioners have done it.”

The most recent time a uniform-clad outsider led the Pennsylvania State Police was the late 1980s. Not so long ago, perhaps, but it was before Facebook.