Voters will decide by referendum Nov. 8 whether to keep the sheriff's office as Harford's principal law enforcement agency or allow the county executive to hire a police chief to head a police department.
A vote for Question A would favor forming a police department.
A no vote on the ballot question would support retaining the current sheriff's system, the last county sheriff's office in the metropolitan area with full law enforcement authority.
If Question A passes, the county charter will be amended to allow creation of a police department headed by a chief appointed by the county executive with approval of the County Council and would specify the limited circumstances under which a police chief could be dismissed.
The chief would oversee law enforcement with the sheriff's role reduced to court security, process service and operation of the detention center, essentially the duties of other sheriff's offices elsewhere in the area.
Question A has pitted a number of deputies against the sheriff and made the general election race for county sheriff more complicated.
Local 838 of sheriff's deputies union is campaigning for Question A as Citizens for a County Police Department. The deputies advocate a new law enforcement system to end politics within the office and have endorsed Joseph P. Meadows, the Republican challenger to incumbent Sheriff Robert E. Comes.
However, both sheriff candidates -- not surprisingly -- favor the status quo and find themselves campaigning against Question A at the same time they are campaigning against each other.
The complexity of the issue became more apparent to Mr. Meadows when he found some union deputies have his "Vote for Meadows" campaign signs side by side with "Vote for Question A" signs in their lawns. They want him as sheriff, although in the best of their hoped for possible worlds not necessarily as their boss.
The argument of which law enforcement system would better serve Harford County began during the administration of County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr., who preceded current
Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann. It peaked last year as Mrs. Rehrmann made a sweeping proposal to strip the sheriff's office of much of its power.
Mrs. Rehrmann, elected in 1990, cited accountability as a key issue after the county had paid a $400,000 settlement to the family of William Ford, a Delaware inmate who died in March 1992 at the Detention Center while serving a 30-day sentence on a drunken-driving conviction. The Detention Center is run by the sheriff's office.
Her critics, including Sheriff Comes, charged that the settlement was premature because a grand jury decided the inmate had committed suicide.
PD Mrs. Rehrmann persisted and pushed for limiting the sheriff's au
thority. She initially proposed to take the Detention Center away from the sheriff but later dropped that and concentrated on creating the police department.
In a unanimous vote, the County Council approved creation of a Department of Police through an amendment to the county charter. A charter amendment must be put to referendum in the next general election. Thus Question A.
However, attempts to get supporters of each side of the question to publicly discuss its merits have failed.
In an Oct. 10 letter to Cpl. Teresa G. Walter, committee chairwoman of People for a County Police Department, Carl B. Klockars, a University of Delaware criminal justice professor, challenged the deputies' union leaders to debate the merits of Question A.
Dr. Klockars, paid by the Maryland Sheriffs Association to lobby for retention of the current sheriff's office, proposed teaming with Jeffrey D. Wilson, the lame duck County Council president, to debate pro-police department advocates.
Corporal Walter, a 14-year veteran of the sheriff's office, countered Dr. Klockars' proposal, offering to debate Sheriff Comes.
L Sheriff Comes said debating Question A wasn't his bailiwick.
In a recent interview, he reiterated his previous statements against a police department, citing the cost of changing systems as the most prohibitive factor. He said a switch to a police force would cost county taxpayers at least $1 million.
The Rehrmann administration said the transfer would cost $279,000 initially and $100,000 annually thereafter.
The sheriff also said that an appointed police chief would not take politics out of law enforcement but would make matters worse because a police chief would have to answer to the county executive.
Corporal Walter and Deputy 1st Class John J. Miner, president of the deputies' union, disagreed.
A full year before every general election, politicking begins within the sheriff's office, they said.
"We go through this every four years," said Deputy Miner.
"Any decision, especially if it's even a little controversial or may have a negative consequence, is avoided," said Corporal Walter.
They cited the "black glove" incident as a prime example.