Siren Call of Sheriff Pepersack

February 19, 1993

Too bad Baltimore County Sheriff Norman Pepersack doesn't have arrest powers. Then he could slap the cuffs on himself for his repeated attempts to impersonate a police officer.

The sheriff was in Annapolis last Wednesday to lobby the legislature for permission to put lights and sirens on his department's 36 cars. He'll be refused, though, just as county officials shot down his previous efforts to outfit his vehicles with lights and sirens like those the real cops use. In the wake of major layoffs in the county, the tens of thousands of dollars for the lights and sirens would be a particularly nonsensical expense.

Like real cops. . . isn't that the sheriff's problem? Isn't it his siren call, so to speak, to be like a real cop? His apparent frustration over not having police-type powers would seem to explain his sundry hijinks, from requesting lights and sirens to seeking a broader role for his 51 deputies.

Historical precedent and the county law office are clear about the tasks of the sheriff's department. Deputies are to serve legal papers, provide security at courts and escort prisoners between facilities. It's not hard to understand why the sheriff, a 23-year veteran of the state police, might be bored in his job, but he knew what he was getting into when he sought the $55,000-a-year position.

The sheriff's misadventures have caused considerable vexation for county officials, who have had to rein him in on a number of occasions. In late 1991, after he had told his deputies they could respond to emergency situations just like real cops, both the county attorney and the county administrative officer told Sheriff Pepersack to, in effect, chill out. They warned him that the county's liability insurance would not cover deputies in such emergencies. The sheriff relented, and in a January 1992 memo to his deputies, he restated the traditional role of his office.

But now he's trying to expand that role, again. It's just the latest salvo in his running battle with his 1990 ticket mate, County Executive Roger Hayden. Mr. Hayden wants to wrest control of the county's $10.3 million jail system from the sheriff's office, claiming he should oversee the government's sixth-largest budget expense. The executive also decided that the DWI jail in Owings Mills will be privatized, a move that would prevent the sheriff from having a hand in operating the facility.

Surely -- unfortunately -- there'll be further chapters in the saga of Baltimore County's frustrated sheriff. Arresting drama it's not.

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