The Sheriffs' Doc Makes a House Call

COMMENT

August 28, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Last week, this column discussed the political nature of the sheriff's office and the letter the Maryland Sheriffs' Association wrote to claim that election by voters was its quintessential virtue.

But the association didn't stop there. The MSA promoted a survey the organization made of nearly 100 Harford officials and political candidates, asking whether they favored keeping police functions with the elected sheriff or creating a new county police force under county government.

Eighty-five percent of those who responded favored the existing system, under the sheriff. That's a typical result for interest groups that poll candidates on sensitive issues: those in favor respond, the others dodge the questionnaire to avoid losing potential votes.

But 35 percent of those surveyed did not respond, and several of those people voiced their displeasure in other forums with the MSA and the Harford sheriff's office.

The division shows that this charter amendment question -- to create a county police force under an appointed chief or not -- on the November ballot will be hotly contested to win the votes of Harford citizens.

The Maryland Sheriffs' Association sees the Harford County ballot issue as a watershed for the future of sheriffs' offices in law enforcement. With a population of nearly 200,000, Harford is the only metro county in Maryland where the sheriff still runs the law enforcement agency.

The MSA, which raises money in part by mail solicitations that offer honorary memberships and talismanic bumper stickers for $20 a year, has hired Carl Klockars, a University of Delaware criminal justice professor who's long been tied to the Harford sheriff's office, as its lobbyist and adviser to incumbent Sheriff Robert Comes.

Dr. Klockars, who has written and consulted widely on police organizations and methods, raised eyebrows (and concerns about police practices) recently with his admitted photo surveillance of the opening of the Bel Air office of the lobby group supporting the police force charter amendment.

(That group, called the People for a County Police Department, is mainly staffed by representatives of the Harford County Deputy Sheriffs Union, whose politically active members would prefer to work for an appointed police chief. But that's another story.)

Once a strong proponent of police departments replacing sheriff offices, Professor Klockars says he has been converted in recent years in working with the Harford sheriff.

His conversion, curiously enough, coincided with the change in the views of his local employer.

He started as liaison for then-County Executive Habern Freeman in a 1988 citizen task force study of whether Harford should create a police department. The study group said yes, but Mr. Freeman decided against it. He then hired Dr. Klockars to help the sheriff, Dominick Mele, to implement some 100 recommended changes in the sheriff's operations.

Next, the professor was paid by the sheriff's department and continued to work with the agency, funded by a federal grant. Later, he returned as a consultant to Mr. Comes and lobbyist, paid by the MSA. Over the past few years, he's retained close ties to the sheriff through unpaid service on an internal Review of Force committee that he, Dr. Klockars, created.

More than an advisor, the Delaware man has been de facto spokesman for Mr. Comes on various issues, including questions about management of the local office. The approach of another quadrennial election has forced Mr. Comes to speak to the public on his own again, apparently to display that personal political responsiveness that the MSA praises as the essence of the elected sheriff.

The Maryland Sheriffs' Association counts Harford County as one of its strongest wells of support. Some 1,500 countians have paid their $20 or so to become honorary members.

You may have seen their mail solicitation letters, that stress the -- need for more non-tax money to fight drugs and crime.

The ones that say your donations will be used to "support crime prevention and awareness programs, promote public safety and provide improved training and technical assistance for their personnel."

The letters the Maryland Secretary of State's office said last year had the "capacity to mislead" the public and that the organization had not properly disclosed the actual use of these solicited funds.

The letters that didn't mention the advocacy campaign to keep sheriffs on the public payroll, or to conduct public relations for the Harford sheriff, or to pay lobbyists to defeat the Harford charter amendment and a similar ballot issue in Kent County.

Those activities may be appropriate for the MSA to promote the livelihood of its members, as any trade organization may do. It's questionable, however, whether the "honorary" members intended their crime-fighting dues to be spent on political job-protection campaigns.

Yes, the Harford sheriff's job will not disappear even if voters decide in November for a county police force. But the authority, the staff, the power of the office would be significantly diminished by that outcome. And that could affect the sheriff's salary, which is determined by the county.

So there are good reasons for the 24 Maryland sheriffs to man the battlements in Harford, to make this last stand and keep the domino from toppling other sheriff offices throughout the state.

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

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