They usually call him by his last name, Roop. Or, if they're so inclined, they use the less deferential J.E., his first two initials. Locals in Haymarket, the half-square-mile town in western Prince William county, say they often see Police Chief James E. Roop patrolling the peaceful boulevards in his unmarked red cruiser, savoring a meal at PW's Eatery & Dessert Shoppe or chatting up folks outside a gas station, even if they happen to be sipping a beer or two.

Now, Roop, 49, is missing in action, at least temporarily. The Town Council suspended him without pay last week, along with his second in command, Sgt. Gregory Breeden, 46, but has not explained why, saying the matter is a private personnel issue.

Rumors are swirling, and one police officer said he was told by the mayor that the suspension stemmed from "creating a hostile work environment."

For the core group of residents who closely follow town politics, the council members' silence about a public official is maddening. The residents believe they have a right to know because, they are quick to say, they fund the officials' salaries. Roop's yearly salary is $56,808; Breeden's is $44,000.

Meanwhile, the nine-member police department, nearly half of which is staffed by volunteers, is suffering low morale, and some officers are fearing retaliation when Roop and Breeden return Thursday.

"When a high official like the police chief is suspended, I think the public deserves to know why," said Robert Flynn, 60, a retired FedEx deliveryman. Flynn was one of about 30 residents who attended a Town Council meeting Thursday night at which the chief's and sergeant's suspensions were reduced from six weeks to 15 days. "I don't think it's very straightforward. It smacks of a cover-up," Flynn said.

Mayor David Taylor and several other council members declined to comment on their reasons for suspending the officers or ordering an investigation.

Roop did not return two telephone calls to his home. Breeden could not be reached for comment.

After becoming well known a decade ago years ago when a Disney theme park was proposed there, the town of clapboard homes and a quiet main street tries hard to preserve a pedestrian-friendly, small-town feel. A popular summer hangout, Pickle Bob's Soft Serve, for instance, always serves up a free pickle to women who are pregnant.

Crime is low. Police mainly deal with speeders, pump-and-runs at gas stations and the occasional larceny. But residents say they cannot recall a time when such mystery surrounded their tiny police department.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act protects the Town Council from having to disclose the nature of the investigation of the police officers, said the council's attorney, John Bennett. When local governing bodies discuss promotions or disciplinary matters involving other people, the meetings are closed "out of respect" for the employees' privacy, Bennett said.

Haymarket police officer Robert Hoffman, 39, who has been with the force for four years, said the mayor told him a hostile work environment was the reason for the suspensions. Hoffman said the investigation began about four weeks ago when officers on the force ran into a council member at the town's Subway sandwich shop and began complaining about the department.

The Town Council soon hired an attorney, who interviewed most members of the department, Hoffman said. Hoffman said he told the investigator that the chief works only a few days out of the week and that he makes offensive jokes around the office.

"He's not worked more than three days [a week] for the last year and a half. If he's ever worked more than four a week, it's been a heck of a week," said Hoffman, who added that he had hoped the chief would have been terminated and the sergeant demoted.

No one has been named acting police chief in Roop's absence.

"I've had officers asking me if they can take leave because there's no one else in charge," Hoffman said. "It's strange not to have anyone you can call about an issue."

Council member Jay Tobias made a motion this week to terminate Roop but declined to say why and later withdrew the motion. Taylor, the mayor, said the chief has been criticized for not scheduling enough police officers during peak traffic times.

"The council is concerned about the bigger picture. We want high police visibility and strict enforcement of the traffic laws," Taylor said. "We don't want people going 40 miles per hour. The whole town is 25 miles per hour."

Haymarket Police Chief James E. Roop works only a few days a week, a police officer said.