. . . Or A Question Of Who Has The Power?

August 15, 1993|By CARL B. KLOCKARS

The question that Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann has put to County Council is simple: Should Harford County's police and detention center be run by a sheriff who is put into office and serves at the pleasure of the people? Or should they be run by a police chief and a warden who are selected by the county executive?

The sheriff, Robert Comes, as one might expect, argues that the power to decide should be left with the people. The county executive, as one might expect, argues that things will be better if the power to decide is given to her.

. . . The County Council will be forced to consider four major arguments that the Rehrmann administration has advanced. I'd like to make each of them explicit and consider the hard evidence on both sides.

First, there is the argument that if Ms. Rehrmann is allowed to select the chief and warden, she will make the police and detention centers more efficient and cost-effective. . . . But there are some hard facts to consider:

* Citizens of Harford County currently pay less than half of what citizens in most comparable Maryland counties pay for their police service.

* Over the past five years, the sheriff's office has instituted more than 50 new programs and policies to make the delivery of services more cost-efficient. . . . * In his first two months as acting warden, John O'Neill, the county executive's principal adviser on criminal justice matters, has requested eight new detention center employees.

* Ms. Rehrmann maintains that the cost of transition to her system will be only $279,000 the first year and $100,000 more each year thereafter. The sheriff says it will cost more than $1 million. Ms. Rehrmann claims that these cost estimates are "based" on a month-long study of transition costs conducted by two planners from the State Police, but has adamantly refused to make their report public or to share it with the sheriff or members of the County Council.

* Ms. Rehrmann has not specified a single program, policy or procedure she would cut or change or introduce to make the police or detention centers more cost-effective.

The fact is that the sheriff's office is already under-funded and understaffed in many areas and . . . has been forced to cut every ounce of fat. . . . No one, not a police chief, warden, county executive or sheriff, is going to discover any way to make those functions significantly more cost-effective.

The second argument is that because the sheriff is elected, he is not sufficiently accountable to the county executive for his actions. . . . This argument involves a question of balance. How much power to control the police and detention functions should be given to the county executive? . . .

These are the hard facts:

* The county executive already controls the sheriff's budget. County Council can reduce but not increase what she decides to give him.

* With a few exceptions, such as fees paid to informants, every penny spent by the sheriff is monitored by the county executive's Procurement Department.

* Every contract and every major purchase by the sheriff must be approved by the Board of Estimates. The county executive and three of her department heads constitute a voting majority on this seven-member board.

* Every hiring, promotion and firing in the sheriff's office is passed through the county executive's office and monitored by her Office of Personnel. . . .

The third major argument for taking the police and detention functions from the sheriff is that doing so will permit the county executive to give deputies job security they presently do not enjoy working at the pleasure of the sheriff. The hard facts on this issue are:

* . . . No deputy in recent history has ever been terminated for any reason but misconduct.

* Maryland law provides substantial rights, defenses and protection to every police officer in any disciplinary proceeding through the Law En forcement Officer's Bill of Rights. . . . The fact is that by practice and by policy, deputies in the sheriff's office already enjoy as much job protection as any county employee. If the county executive feels a need to give them more, there is a far simpler method than going to a county police. In fact, it would be cost-free. Simply get the state legislature to pass a one-line law that reads: "No employee of the Harford County Sheriff's Office shall be terminated except for cause."

The final argument that must be weighed by the council holds that by stripping the police and detention functions from the sheriff, deputies will be protected from the pressures and disruptions of electoral politics. The hard facts are that:

* Every deputy of every rank is fully free to choose whether to become involved in a sheriff's election. In fact, the majority of deputies remain neutral.

* In the most recent election, two of the three persons who were selected to be the top ranking officers in the Comes administration took no public position in support of either candidate.

* Policies of the sheriff's office prohibiting political activities by deputies are substantial and far exceed the controls on any other county employees. . . . The fact is that in the wake of an election of a new sheriff, there is often disruption and a major shake-up. There are demotions, transfers, reassignments and a new administration is formed. But no deputy in the past 50 years has ever been terminated for political reasons. And, the shake-ups in the sheriff's office pale by comparison with the blood-letting that followed the election of the present county executive. Department heads rolled everywhere for purely political reasons. The question that the council must decide is whether or not to make the chief of police and the warden just two more of those heads.

Carl B. Klockars is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, and was recently retained by the Maryland Sheriff's Association as an adviser to Harford Sheriff Robert Comes.

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