Sheriff Or Chief, Change Is Needed

COMMENT

August 01, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The proposal to create a Harford County police force, with an appointed professional police chief taking over the sheriff's duties, certainly arose at an inauspicious time.

Appointed police officers in these parts are up to their necks in hot muddy water: Aberdeen's police chief is suspended for misusing government funds, Elkton's chief resigns in a personnel controversy, Chesapeake City's lone policeman is fired by the mayor out of personal pique.

None of this helps to bolster claims that an appointed chief would be more professional and bring more stability to a politicized office.

Fact is, problems will crop up in a police agency no matter who is running it or how the chief is selected. And because of the sensitive nature of law enforcement and its significant powers, the problems will rightly receive magnified public attention.

An important issue is how the law enforcement executive, or county government, deals with these problems. There's where the sheriff's office is struggling, despite years of hiring consultants and a couple of reports detailing needed changes.

Lack of basic policies, lack of individual accountability, the automatic alibi and stonewalling -- these are responses that do not inspire public trust in the office and in the office-holder. And yet that's what the public got from Sheriff Robert Comes with the death of William M. Ford in the detention center last year.

Another key issue is the way politics affects the department's operations. Harford deputies hold their jobs at the pleasure of the sheriff; that's not the case with an appointed chief. When campaigning, for or against the incumbent, becomes the paramount concern of police officers, the system suffers. The system also suffers when those who backed the loser pay the consequences in punitive transfers or demotions.

Significantly, the Harford deputies' union, which might benefit from its political clout over the boss, strongly supports the change to a police department. So did Sheriff Comes during the 1990 campaign.

The costs of switching law enforcement and jail duties from the sheriff to an appointed police chief are also at issue. The county ++ executive calculates it will cost nearly $300,000 in first-year charges, and about $100,000 a year thereafter.

Carl B. Klockars, the criminal justice specialist working for the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, argues that the transfer costs will be much higher, as much as $1 million.

Howard County, which has about the same population, spends twice as much per capita on police protection, Mr. Klockars noted. But Howard also has twice as many police officers, an indication that Harford's policing force will have to grow, regardless of whose budget it is in.

Harford also has three towns with their own funded police forces (unaffected by the proposed switch); Howard has none, which naturally adds to that county's higher per capita cost of a county police force.

Taxpayers naturally want to hold the budget line. But the true changeover cost is a small part of the sheriff's $16 million annual budget.

The basic question is whether Harford County gets a better system -- for its residents, for its law enforcement employees, and, yes, for those in its custody.

A police and corrections staff with the job protection and benefits of other county workers would be an improvement. Sheriff's employees would not lose their jobs. The sheriff, an elected state officer, would keep a small staff for courthouse security and process service duties.

An appointed chief with daily accountability to county government should be more responsive to public needs than the winner of a quadrennial beauty contest. And if county officials are suspected of misdeeds, call the state's attorney or attorney general, not the sheriff.

The merger of sheriff dispatchers into the county's (911) Emergency Operations Center would improve response times and coordination of efforts at an emergency scene. The sheriff has already endorsed that merger; it shouldn't be an issue.

Controversy over the county detention center initially prompted the police department proposal from County Executive Eileen Rehrmann. The mysterious death of Mr. Ford in the jail was not cause itself for a change. The county's settlement of a potential lawsuit (prepared and documented) with his family was a cost-analysis decision, not one made to embarrass Sheriff Comes and force a political takeover of the jail.

But the automatic "suicide" verdict by Sheriff Comes, the failure to promptly investigate a violent death by strangulation, the foot-dragging, the blame-shifting, the gag orders on this matter -- these are reasons to question his jail administration and to support the transfer to a separate professional corrections department.

With the new acting warden installed from Mrs. Rehrmann's staff, she could have effected the transfer by executive action, as was done in Baltimore County. She seeks instead the County Council's approval, a wise move for building consensus.

It would also be wise, given the magnitude of this change, to submit the idea for a county police force to public referendum in November 1994, as some officials advise. Voters elected a sheriff in 1990 to serve four years as law enforcement chief.

And Harford voters should decide whether to change to a county police department, with a chief appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council.

But that move should not delay the expeditious transfer of jail and dispatcher duties to control of county government before the election.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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