Harford sheriff's small acts make big difference

April 02, 1995|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

The first big test for newly elected Harford County Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows came Jan. 10.

That was the day a man held his estranged wife at gunpoint, then doused her with gasoline in Norrisville, police said.

The man already had fired shots and was threatening to set the woman ablaze.

When Sheriff Meadows arrived at the command post set up in a nearby fire station, he was briefed, received a recommendation from his command staff about what to do and quickly assessed the situation, said Sgt. Edward Hopkins, a sheriff's spokesman.

He then authorized the use of deadly force, Sergeant Hopkins said.

"It was the first time I ever heard the [shoot-to-kill] order," he said. "Everyone in the room knew his assessment was accurate, but they seemed to hesitate only for an instant, double-checking what the sheriff had said."

The suspect, David Charles Kling, survived a sharpshooter's bullet in the face. His attorneys have said they intend to proceed with an insanity plea in Harford Circuit Court.

Any doubts deputies may have had about the sheriff's lack of law enforcement experience ended that day, said Deputy 1st Class John J. Miner, president of Local 838 of Harford County's Deputy Sheriffs' Union.

He also said the union's relationship with Sheriff Meadows is a marked improvement over the one it had with former Sheriff Robert E. Comes.

And County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who had supported Question A, a referendum last November to create a county police department, said, "Our relationship with the sheriff's office has begun to show improvement."

Had Question A passed, the sheriff's responsibilities would have been relegated to courthouse security and process serving. It was narrowly defeated by Harford voters.

"We are working with the sheriff to put more deputies on the road and to secure additional funding grants," Mrs. Rehrmann said last week.

But George Harrison, a spokesman for the Rehrmann administration, cautioned that Mrs. Rehrmann could not evaluate the new sheriff's efficiency. "Four months is too soon to judge that," he said.

Sheriff Meadows called his first four months on the job "enjoyable and challenging."

"We are doing well," he said. "I've had a lot of cooperation from my command staff as well as the rank-and-file."

The sheriff said he has much he wants to do, so "the hardest part has been keeping my patience."

The deputies union sees how hard the sheriff is working, the long hours that he and his command staff spend at the office, Deputy Miner said.

"At least now, when we have questions or requests, we get a prompt response," he said.

The sheriff recently surprised union officials by showing up unaccompanied to address their concerns and to answer questions.

"The former sheriff brought his entire command staff along," Deputy Miner said. "They listened, said they would get back to us, and we waited for answers that never came."

Sheriff Meadows has done many little things to boost morale, and his little decisions are beginning to make a big difference, Deputy Miner said.

"We asked for typewriters to do our reports . . . and two new ones were in the office the next day," he said.

Another small decision relieved anxiety for a pregnant deputy.

Deputy 1st Class Kimberly Gigac requested permission to wear civilian clothes rather than her uniform when teaching schoolchildren about drug abuse in the agency's DARE anti-drug program.

Deputy Gigac said she was concerned about driving to and from the schools in uniform while armed.

"While in uniform, I would still have a duty to respond to a crime in progress and could easily be assaulted," she said.

Sheriff Meadows responded favorably the same day, she said.

"I was a little surprised how quickly the decision came back, considering past experiences," she said.

Major Howard G. Walter, Sheriff Meadows' chief deputy, said, "That was a practical decision and kept a deputy who was already doing good work on the job for us."

The sheriff said many of those decisions are "no-brainers." He said he thought previous complaints from deputies often were ignored.

The necktie-and-jacket complaint is a good example, the sheriff said. Past policy required deputies to wear a tie with a long-sleeved shirt, but not with short sleeves.

If a deputy in short sleeves got chilly, he could not slip on a jacket unless he also put on a tie.

The sheriff said it made absolutely no sense, so he ended the policy.

He also changed policy on promotional exams, he said.

The deputies union complained last fall that testing schedules were unfair to some deputies who had to work all night before the 9 a.m. exams. The exams were postponed.

Now, Sheriff Meadows has promised the union that lieutenants or higher-ranking members of his command staff will work patrol the night before the exams later this month if the deputies taking the exams cannot be scheduled for a day off.

As a bonus, all deputies taking the exams will be given two hours of compensatory time off, Deputy Miner said.

"In the past, day-shift deputies were paid [for exam time] and those working other shifts were not," he said.

"The sheriff has been very fair with us," Deputy Miner said.

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