In Lehigh County, where I'm a less frequent visitor, I've always seen at least one Deputy Sheriff. He wanders in and out of the meeting room from time to time. Allentown City Council began using police officers this Summer, and Bethlehem's police just began "babysitting" a few weeks ago. I was surprised to hear the crackle of one officer's radio during a Zoning Hearing Board meeting last week.
One Bethlehem officer took it upon himself to interrupt a public speaker who was getting louder and louder, eventually escorting him out of Town Hall. Tony Simao, who films these meetings as a public service, captured the ejection on video. I believe that call should have come from the Chair, and not from a police officer, but have no quarrel with the removal.
But is it really necessary to send cops to a Zoning Hearing Board meeting? The unspoken message is that the public can't be trusted to behave.
Just two years ago, during a Kirkwood City Council meeting, a regular came in with two guns blazing, shooting a police officer, Public Works Director, two Council members, the Mayor and a reporter. Six people died, including the shooter. It's a tragic story that demonstrates that there are nuts out there who will get violent. But a police presence was no help in that instance.
People have spoken at municipal meetings in their boxers, KKK garb. One wiseass actually used a "fart machine" during a Medina, Ohio Council meeting. That's fine. But when a person interferes with the rights of others (e.g., holding up a sign while someone else speaks, or refusing to leave the podium), Courts get annoyed.
I believe this police presence is unnecessary for three reasons: 1) It has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights; 2) Kirkwood City Council's experience reveals that this presence is largely ineffective against any real danger; and 3) police officers have better things to do than be overpaid babysitters.