As Kent police controversy rages, troopers handle local duties

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 -- murder, rape, assault, motor vehicle theft and breaking and entering -- 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 -- a limitation found in most of the state's largest counties.

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 Kent County News. The letter said the department had become unstable since the sheriff's election in 1990 and that the deputies were concerned about his effectiveness to lead.

Sheriff Bright said he ordered the change in his office's operation 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.

"We're trying to get damage under control," he said. "It's tough when you build a good image and something like this occurs. We've got to repair the damage."

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.

"It's not good," he said of morale. "It's not good at all."

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.

Wicomico County Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms Jr., who also is president of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, said Monday he intended to spearhead an effort to put the police force issue on a referendum vote in the November election.

lead,1 Sheriff Bright declined to be specific about what he said were internal office problems. But a state police spokesman confirmed that the sheriff had made allegations of wrongdoing against four of his deputies and that Colonel Tolliver agreed to investigate the charges.

State police spokesman Michael McKelvin said Sheriff Bright accused one deputy of criminal misbehavior and said three others were guilty of "improprieties." The sheriff made the allegations in a letter, but did not name the deputies, said Mr. McKelvin.

The sheriff's actions against his deputies drew a sharp rebuff from R. Stewart Barroll, a Chestertown lawyer representing the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"It would appear that what he's done is retaliation for comment on a public issue," said Mr. Barroll. "It has done nothing to improve the morale of the deputies."

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