Why Support Your Local Sheriff?

February 13, 1993

"I know you are a law abiding citizen," reads the computer-written mass mailing sent by the Maryland Sheriffs Association asking people for $20 to become honorary members and receive a bumper sticker and window decal.

There's no indication the group checked your criminal record or citizenship status, despite the personally addressed letter with the name and badge of the local county sheriff at the top.

The Maryland secretary of state, who is also a law-abiding citizen, wrote back to the sheriffs. He urged them to obey the charity solicitation laws by registering with his office and making required financial disclosures about the use of their funds.

His office also said the sheriffs' solicitation letter appears to violate the law because it has "the capacity to mislead" recipients into thinking the donation is for official use.

Solicitations by law-enforcement organizations are a frequent source of public complaints to the secretary of state's office. The office has taken action against eight such campaigns soliciting donations or selling products over the past two years.

A common objection is that these groups use their public positions of authority to extract money from the same citizens who pay their salaries and invest them with that authority. The most intimidating type is the phone solicitation, from a caller who represents law officers and knows your name, address and phone number. The mass mailing method is "least offensive" to potential donors, who will not be bothered by telephone follow-up, the sheriffs' group explained.

Little of the money from these fund-raisers goes to the sponsor organizations. A study of police and firefighter solicitations in Minnesota found that 83 percent of the proceeds went to paid telemarketers.

Associations of law-enforcement officers, even though private clubs, should not be allowed to solicit the public for money, whether as a donation or for products. The same principle should apply to other fraternal groups, such as firefighters or teachers, that derive their public standing from government employment.

At the least, the state should amend the law to require registration of financial information by any group that hires professional solicitors to raise funds, by phone or mail. Volunteer fire units are exempt from registering with the state. So are police and fire fraternal organizations -- except when they solicit for charity purposes.

Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr. warns the public to check out phone solicitations before buying or contributing. His office makes available the financial reports from registered organizations that solicit funds. Demanding that report from solicitors is, for now, the best way to fend off the strong-arming of the public by public servants.

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