Who Should Run Harford's Jail?

April 22, 1993

For more than a year, the suspicious death of William Ford has hung like a specter over the Harford County Detention Center. Autopsy results were withheld, investigations by the county and FBI are without public conclusion. The county sheriff's office, which runs the center, called the strangulation death a suicide. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy said it was not. Now county attorneys are talking with the dead man's family to avoid a lawsuit alleging murder, sodomy and rape by jail guards as Mr. Ford was serving a 30-day drunk driving sentence last March.

The county is liable for civil lawsuits at the detention center, though the sheriff is a state official. It's another example of the muddled liability for the sheriff: he is an elected state official outside county authority but the county pays the bills.

This remote control makes little sense. County Executive Eileen Rehrmann wants approval to transfer control of the jail from the state to the county. Her county procurement chief this week became the acting warden, replacing Maj. E. Dale Zepp of the sheriff's office, the focus of detention center management criticism, who is retiring.

She and the state's attorney have asked the Maryland attorney general to investigate problems at the Harford jail. Sheriff Robert E. Comes apparently agrees changes are needed.

For 20 years, the sheriff has been nominal warden of the facility, but has handed charge to a subordinate. The overcrowded center lacks a full-time warden, as problems multiply. Four deputies have been fired in the past year for "socializing" with inmates. Failure to separate violent and nonviolent inmates has been a repeated criticism.

A few years ago, a study panel recommended a county police force for Harford, with clear legal and political responsibility. That report was shelved, though, after management changes were promised and the costs to the county of such a shift became evident.

The inquiry into Mr. Ford's death began too late, with evidence already removed. As a result, a county grand jury pressed the sheriff to investigate all inmate deaths at the jail.

This tragic case begs for resolution. But the Ford case also calls attention to the need to end the uncomfortable dichotomy of responsibility over the operation of Harford County's detention center. The county should take over full control.

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