A Needed Move In New Times . . .

August 15, 1993|By EILEEN M. REHRMANN

The citizens of Harford County deserve the best in public safety. A major question is whether we are best served by a police force headed by an elected sheriff or by a county police department headed by an appointed chief.

This issue has been discussed for more than 20 years.

In 1988, at the request of the previous administration, a task force of leading citizens of the county worked for more than a year and a half studying the operations of the sheriff's office. It unanimously endorsed a recommendation that "Harford County assign its police function to a County Police."

The report identified a number of major findings and recommendations, that, if implemented, would improve the delivery of law enforcement services to our citizens.

The most significant recommendation, however, was to transfer

the law enforcement function from the sheriff's office to a county police department.

As population has increased, so have the demands on public safety.

Here are reasons why a county police department will better serve Harford County's needs:

* Political influences. Every four years the operations of the sheriff's office are disrupted by the political campaign to elect a sheriff. Deputies often feel compelled to choose sides, pitting one group or individual against another. Promotions or demotions often follow as a reward or punishment. It is time to move Harford County's law enforcement from the traditional "good old boys network" to that of a professional, merit-based police force.

* Accountability. Responsible management of taxpayer dollars requires professional public safety leadership accountable to county government and county taxpayers in the same manner as every other county department. Under state law, county government has no legal authority to direct or restrict the sheriff's spending practices. Likewise, hiring, firing and promotions are at the sole discretion of the sheriff.

* Stability. The sheriff's office is subject to radical changes in administration and policy following elections. All sheriff's office employees currently serve at the pleasure of the sheriff. A merit-based police department would provide consistent, objective application of policy.

* Liability. State law and court cases have made it clear that county government is held responsible for liabilities incurred by the sheriff, while having little say in how the money is spent, policies are implemented or legal advice is followed. To protect taxpayer dollars, it is critical that county government have the ability to limit financial exposure.

* Efficiency. By fully integrating the public safety function with other county systems, such as personnel, budget, planning, law and procurement, overall efficiency can be markedly improved and duplication avoided.

For these reasons, after review of the task force recommendations, as well as holding a series of public meetings and a public hearing, I have introduced legislation to the County Council.

This legislation proposes structural changes in the areas of corrections, communications and law enforcement.

I am proposing the creation of a Department of Corrections headed by a professional correctional administrator to manage the Detention Center, now operated by the sheriff.

The second element involves transfer of police dispatch and communications activities from the sheriff's office to the existing Division of Emergency Operations, which currently operates our 911 center. This transfer has been planned for some time in cooperation with the sheriff.

The third element is the creation of the Department of Police. Road patrols, criminal investigation, crime prevention and other elements of the sheriff's law enforcement activities will be transferred to the new police department. It will be managed by a professional law enforcement administrator appointed by the county executive, subject to County Council confirmation.

To address the concern that a police chief must be independent and free of political influences, I am also proposing a charter amendment which would put restrictions on the ability of a county executive to remove the chief of police.

The costs of providing law enforcement and corrections in Harford County have risen dramatically over the past 10 years.

In 1984, the sheriff's operating budget was $5.7 million. Nine years later, it stands at $15.9 million.

As our county continues to grow, public safety costs can also be expected to grow. The proposed legislation provides the necessary structure to make sure that our tax dollars are used effectively and efficiently.

The first year cost of making these changes will be about $104,000. A detailed breakdown of these costs accompanies the proposed legislation.

These numbers are far different from those suggested by Carl Klockars, a paid lobbyist for the Maryland Sheriff's Association. However, many of the costs cited by critics are the result of changes that will occur regardless of who manages the public safety function.

Harford County is no longer a small rural area remote from the problems associated with urban growth.

We must adapt to changing times if we are to provide the public safety services our citizens pay for and deserve.

Eileen M. Rehrmann is the Harford County executive.

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