Troopers take over local duties in Kent

March 10, 1994|By Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

CHESTERTOWN -- State troopers have taken over as Kent County's primary law-enforcement officers this week, replacing the sheriff and his 17 deputies while controversy plays out over setting up a countywide police force.

Sheriff William T. Bright asked for state police help after all but three of his deputies publicly challenged his leadership -- and he accused at least four of the others of wrongdoing.

State Police Superintendent Col. Larry W. Tolliver agreed Monday to use troopers at the Centreville barracks in neighboring Queen Anne's County to bolster police service.

Under an edict from Sheriff Bright, all reports of serious crimes in tiny Kent County will be referred to state police.

The sheriff's deputies have traditionally investigated such calls, but now can respond only as backups for the troopers. For the most part, the deputies' duties have been reduced to serving court papers and providing court security.

The sheriff's action followed an open letter signed by 14 of his 17 deputies supporting the creation of a separate, countywide police force with a police chief. Against Sheriff Bright's wishes, Kent county commissioners passed legislation last week that would allow them to set up a law-enforcement agency headed by an appointed chief.

"The sheriff no longer has the respect of his men," read the letter, which was published in the weekly newspaper, the Kent County News. Sheriff Bright said he ordered the change in how his office operates because he did not want "disciplinary problems" among the deputies to interfere with law enforcement in Kent County. The published letter, he said, could undermine public confidence in his office.

Sheriff Bright, who was a state trooper for 26 years, blamed the controversy surrounding his office on local politics. He said morale was affected by attempts to change the law-enforcement powers of his department to those of a countywide police force, which he opposes.

Relationships between Sheriff Bright and the county commissioners have deteriorated since last spring when the sheriff wanted to hire his brother, also a former state trooper, as his chief deputy. The commissioners charged that the hiring would be seen as nepotism in the sheriff's office and reduced the job's annual pay to $8,800, stopping the sheriff's plan.

About the same time, the commissioners began to study the feasibility of a county police force.

Commission President William Sutton said the idea did not derive from troubles with Sheriff Bright, but rather from a desire to have greater control over the office because state lawmakers passed legislation last year making counties liable for lawsuits involving complaints against deputy sheriffs.

Mr. Sutton said the county may begin putting a police force together this summer. If that were to happen, most law-enforcement duties would be removed from the sheriff's office and placed under the new police chief.

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