A Job for the Sheriff

August 03, 1994|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

Not since the dastardly tenure of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood's day has the office of sheriff been under such strong attack as it is in Maryland in the '90s.

Sheriffs are elected state officials in Baltimore and the 23 counties, which are responsible for paying them and funding their offices. That division between county budgetary responsibility and legal independence of the sheriff has created a growing movement to reduce the duties of the traditional sheriff's office.

The sheriff's responsibilities, springing from old English common law, vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in Maryland, depending on local governmental decisions.

In Harford County, the sheriff manages the county police force and runs the jail, in addition to providing courthouse security, transporting prisoners and serving legal papers.

In Baltimore County, the sheriff only transports prisoners and serves summonses, subpoenas and other official legal documents. Deputies don't have authority to have police lights or sirens on their vehicles, or to respond as backup for police emergencies.

Other counties apportion duties to the sheriff according to their needs. In Carroll, for example, the sheriff does not provide primary law enforcement (which is assigned to resident state troopers paid by the county) but does have authority for traffic violations and arrests.

Last year, Baltimore County took away the sheriff's responsibility for running the detention center. Calvert County commissioners started to do the same thing two years ago before settling their differences over budget and authority with that county's sheriff.

The last elected sheriff of Talbot County was told by authorities that he could not run this year. John Ellerbusch Jr. was convicted of stealing $73,000 in public funds while sheriff and sentenced to a year in prison. He was released last month and filed to regain the position.

The Anne Arundel County sheriff cavalierly overspent his budget and had to be subpoenaed by the County Council to answer for his wastrel ways two years ago. His chief deputy's salary was eliminated from the budget in the raging dispute with county officials.

The sheriff's independent status as a state official responsible only to the electorate every four years is built into the state constitution. Five basic duties are assigned to the sheriff but jurisdictions can choose the functions they wish to eliminate.

Maryland's last constitutional convention in 1967 proposed eliminating the sheriff's job altogether. But the new charter was rejected by voters and there has been no serious move since then to erase the venerable office.

The trend in Maryland is toward limiting the powers of the office, at least in making the office more financially accountable. Salaries are set by each county. So are annual budgets, but sheriffs have been known to assert their independence by exceeding these limits.

Two counties will vote in November on creating police forces to take over law-enforcement duties from the sheriff.

Kent County commissioners voted to go ahead with a police force this spring, but the issue was put on the ballot through a citizens petition drive in this smallest Maryland county. If passed, the question would authorize the commissioners to proceed if they wished. But no date would be set for the transfer. A public task force reported that improved efficiency and accountability, officer job protection and law-enforcement stability would result from taking that job out of the sheriff's office.

Harford County voters will decide whether to create a county police force, under the county executive's office, and relieve the sheriff of this principal duty.

The Harford county executive tried last year to wrest control of the detention center from the sheriff, but the County Council balked at approving the administrative transfer that would have enhanced the executive's political power.

Harford County has been involved in two recent legal tests of the liability for actions of the sheriff's deputies, and whether they are state employees or county employees. The state's highest court decided that sheriff's employees are state employees, which relieved the county of direct legal liability for the shooting of a bystander in 1987 during a deputies' chase after a fugitive. But the county would still be liable for paying any judgment against the sheriff.

Last year, the county paid $400,000 to the family of an inmate who died in the Harford detention center, which is under the sheriff's office. The Harford administration explained that it would be liable for actions of state employees, over whom it had virtually no control, and that the settlement would limit the county's potential exposure.

Harford is the only metropolitan county where the sheriff is still the chief law-enforcement officer. Others have opted for county police forces or let the state police handle the task.

The principal argument for keeping the sheriff's office is that voters can choose who will perform those duties, unlike the appointed department heads who manage county roads and sewers and parks and so forth. In most cases, the successful sheriff candidate has a law-enforcement or legal background that affords a minimum of practical experience. But it doesn't have to be that way: Anyone can run for, and win, the job.

There's also the budget argument: Reduce the sheriff's duties and you still don't eliminate that state job, the salary or basic office expenses.

But the question of whether an elected sheriff provides efficient service is open to debate. Baltimore County this year turned down the sheriff's bid to transport county prisoners to District Court appearances, finding that a private security firm could do that job at much lower cost.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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