HARRISBURG - Bankers' hours at the police barracks?

Indeed. Under a pilot program implemented Dec. 18 with no public notice, the Skippack State Police Barracks in central Montgomery County has replaced desk clerks with automated phones during nights and weekends.

After 4 p.m., or anytime on weekends, you'll find the blue venetian blinds drawn over the lobby's bulletproof glass. Your only link to help is a lobby phone that rings at a dispatch center in Norristown, 11 miles away.

But legislators say no one warned them this change was coming. So does the county district attorney, who says he learned of it from an Inquirer reporter. And domestic-violence prevention groups say cutting barracks hours puts battered spouses at greater risk.

State Sen. John C. Rafferty, (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, ordered Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller to explain the decision yesterday.

"I was caught off-guard," said Rafferty. "This is one of the fastest growing areas in the state. This is of great concern."

Miller defended the move yesterday as a way to save money and put more troopers on the road. "So far it appears to be working well," he said.

Miller said his department is looking at reducing hours at 66 of its 81 barracks statewide but has no plans to close any barracks.

The Skippack station handles calls from a swath of northern and western Montgomery County, where some rural areas have no local police, and many municipal police departments don't operate 24/7 - but where the population is growing. In Skippack alone, more than 1,200 homes have gone up since the 2000 census.

And more congestion may be on the way. As The Inquirer reported recently, the state is considering relocating Graterford Prison and turning its 1,700 acres over to a developer.

Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor was among those who spoke against reducing hours at the barracks, which is located in the borough of Schwenksville. About a fifth of the county relies on state police who "are stretched very thin," Castor said yesterday.

Miller said he has received no citizen complaints yet about the shorter hours, begun Dec. 18.

Rafferty and others said the barracks' lobby phone would be of little value to a battered spouse who was being pursued.

Victims of domestic abuse "rely on the barracks for immediate safety and an immediate response from perpetrators," said Ellen Kramer Adler, managing attorney for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Imagine the terror of being backed into a corner by a pursuer who could pull the phone out of the wall."

Miller said police staff in Norristown, monitoring the Skippack lobby on a video camera, could lock the doors to protect a person in distress.

This suggestion caused eye-rolling in the Senate hearing room.

"I'd rather see bodies than phones at the stations," said Sen. Sean Logan (D., Allegheny).

Miller said he, too, prefers round-the-clock staffing, but that the Rendell administration's budget cuts have forced him to explore automation and shorter hours. He said response time to 911 calls would not change, since troopers are always on patrol. Five clerks were reassigned from Skippack to Norristown late last year, but the barracks' trooper strength remains at 57.

Rafferty said he would raise the issue in budget hearings over the next month. "I'm skeptical," he said. "I will continue to press for reports on it."

Staff writer Diane Mastrull contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.