Political Sheriffs and Police Chiefs

COMMENT

August 21, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Years ago, in a distant place and a time when TV ads for elections were unusual and somewhat costly, we were amused by the repetitive yet simple television commercials for a candidate for county drain commissioner.

It was an obscure elective office, the overseer of sewer and water systems and their lucrative building contracts. The foresighted candidate won easily as a result of his novel TV campaign and was re-elected through the power of incumbency. He was finally removed from office by the legal process of indictment and conviction for taking payoffs.

He wasn't voted out of office by the irate citizenry, whose support he had adeptly won through TV ads. Nobody came forward to claim that it was the election process that assured public control against such crookery or "misappropriation."

I recalled that ancient episode after reading a letter from the Maryland Sheriffs' Association in response to an article I wrote about sheriffs in this state.

The MSA's principal argument, repeated over and over, was that voters had a historic right to elect the sheriff, who was more responsible to them and responsive to their individual needs than an appointed police chief.

The organization's point seems to be that a sheriff is primarily political, in getting elected and getting re-elected, which is to the citizens' benefit. Every complaint is an opportunity to win a vote, as the MSA puts it. But the sheriff is also a professional and an impartial manager of sensitive services, the group insists, one who wouldn't put petty politics in the way of service.

Certainly, that is the challenge of any responsible elected official. But it just isn't an overwhelming argument for electing a sheriff to head a police department or a county jail, any more than it is for direct voter election of the Register of Wills (who is elected) or the county parks director (who isn't). Or a drain commissioner.

In fact, any citizen complaint to a popularly elected sheriff is a double-edged sword. Responsiveness may win the complainant's vote, but it can lose the vote of the person complained against. Most citizens don't want the sheriff to weigh his political net advantage in responding; they want prompt professional action that enforces the law and minimizes harm. Even the appearance of preferential attention to certain groups tarnishes the image of the agency.

Competent law enforcement officers must know how to be courteous, limit confrontation and resolve an incident firmly but fairly.

There's no monopoly on those requirements in a sheriff's department. Government officials who oversee the sheriff, and citizen review groups, remind him that he can be replaced between elections for lack of performance. Law enforcement is a right of the community, not an electioneering service for voters -- only.

And while there are office politics in any job, public or private sector, the quadrennial disruption the election brings to the sheriff's office is more than that, especially since the deputies have become actively involved over the past dozen years.

Harford County will elect a sheriff this November, even if voters choose to create a new county police force under the charter amendment on the same ballot.

Sheriff is an elected state office, which Harford can't eliminate. It's only the sheriff's duties that the county can choose to limit. So there will be a sheriff in Harford for years to come, until the state constitution is changed.

Another issue raised by the sheriffs' association, in its campaign to defeat the proposed Harford charter amendment, is that the ** cost per capita of law enforcement under the Harford sheriff ($52 a year) is half the cost of that in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

But the estimated cost of switching to a county police force, under an appointed chief, would only be $1.50 to $6 per capita, depending on whose figures you believe. That's for the transition; any annual operating cost difference after that should be much less. So it's not a big money issue, despite the rhetoric on that subject.

More patrol officers are needed and will be hired in the next year or two, nearly everyone agrees, and the county's law enforcement budget will grow no matter who is in charge. And the increase in Class One officers will necessitate an increase in support staff. So the apparatus is going to get bigger and cost more.

The question is not whether a police department is more in fashion or a sign of urbanization or whether the change will cost something, but whether the police chief-department might be more effective and efficient for Harford County in the long run.

It's not a question of whether voters better trust County Executive Eileen Rehrmann or Sheriff Robert Comes: They could be out of office after the election.

And there has been no major criticism of the sheriff's deputies' performance over the years. It's considered a good, professional organization, despite some concerns about the election and post-election politics.

Voters will ask themselves if they believe the current full-service sheriff's office offers cost savings and "synergies" between various functions that produce superior results.

Or whether a county government can do better in selecting a qualified, nonpolitical professional to head the police department, responsible to the daily oversight of elected government rather than to a campaign of bull roasts, yard signs and election buttons every four years.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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