Sorting Out Harford's Sheriff Issues

September 17, 1993

Last week's public hearing on bills to restructure the Harford County's sheriff's department produced the usual red herrings, mudslinging and misinformation.

But out of the discussion, amid charges of blackmail and abuse of public office, came a public consensus that a referendum is needed to decide whether police and/or jail authority should be taken from the elected sheriff and given to an appointed police chief and an independent warden.

The referendum could be held in Noverber 1994. A sheriff will be elected as a state official then, however Harford decides on his future powers.

While the public dialogue continues, several key points should be kept in mind:

Regardless of who heads the police agency, more deputies will be needed as Harford grows, the incidence of crime rises and State Police shift more duties to local jurisdictions. It is a cost that will add to the budget of sheriff or police chief.

Deputies need to be placed under civil service, as are other county employees. This will make the department more professional and equitable in hiring and promotion, while erasing opportunities for alleged political favoritism.

The emergency communications system of the sheriff's office should be merged promptly with the county 911 center in its planned new quarters. This shift is endorsed by the sheriff and the county administration. It will reduce response times and better coordinate emergency resources. The cost is covered mostly by a federal grant.

The county detention center has been the focus of much controversy regarding questionable policies and administration, not just over the handling of the death of inmate William Ford. Removing this fiefdom from the sheriff's office is clearly in the public interest, with minimal extra cost, regardless of where police authority is ultimately placed.

Differences in cost estimates of County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and Sheriff Robert Comes are highly exaggerated. The real cost of the transfer -- not extra patrolmen, federal communications grants or the already-budgeted warden's salary -- is nearly $300,000, the county executive and county council agree. The sheriff's $1.3 million estimate is designed to frighten, not to inform.

Citizens are divided on the value of a directly elected sheriff, HTC instead of appointed professionals. That is a fundamental issue, apart from current office-holders. It should be decided by the public, not by politicians cutting deals on Main Street.

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