Plan to cut sheriff's role, clout debated

May 23, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

Harford residents seem more concerned about a proposal to strip the elected sheriff of most law enforcement duties and about the costs of creating a county police force than the prospect of wresting control of the Detention Center from the Sheriff's Office.

At three public meetings in the past 10 days, more than 100 residents and public safety officials have shared their views on County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's proposal to take control of law enforcement and the Harford Detention Center from the Sheriff's Office.

Thursday, during the latest meeting, Mrs. Rehrmann reiterated her plan to introduce legislation this summer that would enable the county to take control of the operation of the Detention

Center. She said she had included a warden position in the fiscal 1994 budget.

The executive said a panel she formed recently to determine how the county should proceed with proposed public safety reform would announce its findings next month.

Sheriff Robert E. Comes opposes Mrs. Rehrmann's plan, which would transfer the jail from his authority to the county administration, and has said he plans to run for re-election next year.

Among residents, the executive's desire to form a county police force and remove the duties of criminal investigation and road patrols from the sheriff has proved more controversial than the bid to take control of the jail.

Some fear the cost of a county police force would require a tax increase, while others said they prefer an elected sheriff because he must answer to the voters.

Joseph Dunn, of the Forest Green/Perryman community association, said members of his community feared the cost would be prohibitive.

"They fear it's going to raise taxes, and they can't pay more," he said.

June Haliscak of Bel Air said she wants a sheriff who is accountable to the voters, instead of a police chief who would answer to the county executive.

"It's a matter of checks and balances," she said in an interview Friday. "The sheriff should be free to enforce the law without pressure from anyone."

The elected sheriff now must face voters every four years.

Under Mrs. Rehrmann's plan, a police chief would answer to the county executive, and the Sheriff's Office would be relegated to providing courthouse security and serving summonses.

Mrs. Rehrmann announced last month that she would take legislative steps to shift control of the jail from the Sheriff's Office to a new, countywide police agency and corrections department in the wake of "management problems" at the jail.

The announcement came amid growing criticism of the jail's management, particularly the handling of the suspicious death of William M. Ford, a 28-year-old Delaware man found dead with a pillow case knotted around his neck in a holding cell at the Detention Center March 1, 1992.

Jail officials initially called the death a suicide. An autopsy concluded Mr. Ford had been strangled, but the state medical examiner was unable to say whether Mr. Ford killed himself or was killed.

No one has been charged in the death, which is being investigated by the county state's attorney's office and the Maryland attorney general's office.

The county already has paid the victim's family $400,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

MEETING

The final meeting on the county executive's bid to create a countywide police force and greatly reduce the authority of the sheriff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday on the third floor of the county administration building, 220 S. Main St., Bel Air.

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