Elitists and Populists Square Off at the Sheriff's Office

October 16, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The Sun, which doesn't live here, thinks Harford County residents should vote in favor of reorganizing their police force. A lot of us who do live here think otherwise. It's a legitimate issue, and raises questions of importance far beyond Harford County.

Locally, a lot of the heat in politics tends to be generated more by personalities than by principle, and that's probably the case here. Currently the top cop in this county is the sheriff, elected by the voters every four years. The officers who make up the county police force he heads are called deputies. In most election years, the deputies are sharply divided between those with grievances, who urgently want the sheriff out, and those who with equal urgency want to retain him.

Partly for this reason, Harford County has had a series of %J one-term sheriffs. The incumbent, Robert Comes, easily won the Democratic primary in September and is given a good shot at winning a second term, although he faces a serious challenge from Joseph Meadows, an attorney with experience as a prosecutor, in the general election.

County executives usually hate having the local police force report to another elected official instead of to them, and Harford's incumbent executive, Eileen Rehrmann, is no exception. She'd like to be able to appoint the county police chief herself.

That's not an unreasonable desire; public safety accounts for a substantial share of the county budget she must submit every year, and she'd like more direct control. (Of course, education costs even more than law enforcement, and she doesn't appoint either the school superintendent or the school board, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't like to.) And besides, she doesn't much care for Sheriff Comes.

There is a referendum question on the county ballot this November that, if approved, would take most law-enforcement functions away from the sheriff and give them to an appointed police chief. The big metropolitan counties in Maryland all have done that years ago, but rural counties generally prefer to stick with their sheriffs.

Harford isn't truly rural any more, but it's still a small enough place that a lot of voters know the politicians personally. Quite a few will choose sides next month on the basis of personality, voting for the ballot question if they like Mrs. Rehrmann or dislike Sheriff Comes, against it if they feel the opposite.

But many more will see their vote as sticking up for one of two contradictory principles -- either that law enforcement ought to be ''non-political'' and thus insulated from elective politics, or that regular elections of the person in charge are the best possible guarantee of civilian control over the local police.

One world view, which has already brought us our ''non-political'' judiciary by making most judgeships election-proof, is fundamentally elitist; it assumes that ordinary citizens aren't qualified to choose judges and police chiefs. The other world view is populist, and assumes that the people collectively will make better appointments to these important posts than any elite.

Neither has a lock on the argument. Common sense reminds us that in any complicated democratic society there has to be a mix between appointing and electing. You can't elect everybody down to the classroom teacher and the cop on the beat, and while you probably could appoint everybody, how without elections are you going to designate the appointers?

An effective balance is somewhere in the middle, but surely not in exactly the same place for every country, state and county. Just because Anne Arundel County has an appointed police chief, it isn't necessarily true that Harford should; just

because the sheriff runs law enforcement in Garrett County, it doesn't mean that that system's best for Harford.

It's my hope -- and also my cautious prediction -- that the voters of Harford County will keep the existing law-enforcement structure, whether under old Sheriff Comes or new Sheriff Meadows, for a while longer. To do otherwise looks like tinkering for tinkering's sake.

There's also the matter of expense. While it may be theoretically true that removing the county police organization from the sheriff's responsibility could be done at modest cost, experience tells us that it won't be. Major structural changes in government, no matter if they're labeled ''reforms'' or ''boondoggles,'' always end up costing the taxpayers a bundle of money without improving services perceptibly.

If our local law enforcement were unsatisfactory, people might feel differently, and would surely be willing to spend money to fix it. But while it hasn't been trouble-free under the various sheriffs, neither have the big-county police departments which are the models for what's been proposed. Baltimore city appoints its police chief too, I believe, although those who are urging Harford County to do the same don't tend to remind us of that.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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