High Noon in Towson

December 18, 1991

A troubling behind-the-scenes power struggle is going on in Towson between the Baltimore County sheriff and the police chief. Unless it can be resolved quickly, law enforcement efforts in Baltimore County may be seriously harmed.

The tug-of-war started soon after Norman Pepersack was elected sheriff a year ago. A grandson of Maryland's first state trooper (Badge No. 1) and brother of the Anne Arundel County sheriff, the 57-year-old former State Police first sergeant saw his mission very differently from his predecessors.

Invoking common law, he pronounced himself to be the county's No. 1 law enforcement officer. He then took a series of steps that attempted to stretch his agency beyond its traditional duties -- serving summonses, transporting prisoners and protecting court facilities. He wanted marked cars with emergency lights, guns and bullet-proof vests as well as police dogs trained to sniff for drugs and bombs.

In the past several months, Sheriff Pepersack has had several run-ins with county budget officials as well as its long-time chief of police, Cornelius Behan.

Whenever the sheriff has failed to get his wishes fulfilled, appeals have been made to outside arbiters. Thus, the national meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh was tapped to pass a resolution condemning the county's alleged lack of support of the sheriff's department. And when the county denied bullet-proof vests for deputy sheriffs and correctional officers, a complaint was lodged with the Maryland Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which has scheduled a hearing in a few weeks.

Meanwhile some strange things are happening in the field.

Although the sheriff acknowledges that he does not have enough manpower to handle even prison transportation without help from the police department, Mr. Pepersack wants his deputies to expand the scope of their work. He wants them to intervene in such police matters as traffic accidents and suspected crimes in progress. His motivation may be well meaning but he clearly is exceeding his authority. Unfortunately, some malcontents and the Baltimore County Retired Fire Fighters and Police Association are egging him on.

Baltimore County has a professional police force of 1,500 sworn officers headed by a nationally acclaimed chief. Those officers need help and cooperation from the community. They do not need questionable meddling from a sheriff's department that has a far narrower mission, smaller staff and different training. There can be only one law-enforcement agency in Baltimore County and that is the county police department. The sooner Mr. Pepersack recognizes that fact of life, the better for all concerned.

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