Sheriff John H. Brown pulled his department out of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force yesterday, leaving only the state police and the state's attorney's office as participants in a drug enforcement group that, until last month, encompassed all four major county law enforcement agencies.
"In recent months, the task force has changed in many ways, and in weighing all of the factors which contribute to a successful task force, it has become apparent to me that the sheriff's office can make a stronger contribution in the war against drugs outside the task force," the sheriff said in a written statement.
The sheriff said he met with State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes yesterday before releasing the statement to explain his reasons for leaving the task force.
In his statement, the sheriff said he told Mr. Barnes that, "at this time, there is a greater concern with 'looking good' than there is with genuine performance" among task force members.
"I sense that politics has crept into the work of the task force," the sheriff said. "I have not seen this before since I joined the task force advisory board in December of 1990. The cohesiveness that was once present no longer exists."
Mr. Barnes said late yesterday that he was surprised by the sheriff's apparently abrupt decision, and that drug enforcement in the county would continue to be effective.
Mr. Barnes said that changes in personnel and task force policies since his election eight months ago "may be uncomfortable" to some in the law enforcement community.
But, he said, "I make my decisions and recommendations in regard to anything that takes place in this office, with the sole concerns being to [ensure] legality, to [ensure] integrity and to best serve the citizenry of this county."
For most of the day, Deputy State's Attorney Marcie S. Wogan said Mr. Barnes would be unavailable for comment because he was preparing a first-degree murder case to be tried next week.
Ms. Wogan and Mr. Barnes downplayed the significance of Mr. Brown's departure from the task force.
"To us, this is a performance issue, not a political issue," Ms. Wogan said.
She contended that it doesn't matter which agencies are part of the task force, "only that the job is getting done. . . . The task force is doing a wonderful job, and we will let the arrest record and conviction rate speak for itself."
Ms. Wogan, asked what the arrest record and conviction rate were, said she could not provide specifics.
The sheriff's move was the second blow in two weeks to the task force, which changed leadership after Mr. Barnes was elected in November. On July 19, Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo announced that his department was pulling out of the task force because of displeasure with the way personnel decisions were being made.
Chief Leppo's departure marked the first major shift in the county's approach to drug enforcement in years. The group, which was responsible for all drug investigations in Carroll, was composed of members of the Westminster Police Department, the Sheriff's Department, the state's attorney's office and the state police.
It was unclear yesterday what the sheriff's departure will mean to the future of the task force. The only police agency left in it is the state police, and the troopers assigned to the task force are under the supervision of the Drug Enforcement Division in Columbia. The troopers do not answer to the Carroll Narcotics Task Force Advisory Board, whose members once included Sheriff Brown, Chief Leppo, the state's attorney and state police officials.
State police issued a statement yesterday saying they would "continue to staff a drug investigative unit within Carroll County." But spokesman Mike McKelvin said the state police superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, had not decided whether his drug investigators would remain part of a task force with the state's attorney's office.
Mr. McKelvin also said that the seizure and forfeiture of suspected drug assets would be handled by assistant attorneys general who advise the Drug Enforcement Division.
The sheriff's office -- and before that, the Westminster Police Department -- handled asset forfeitures for the task force in the past.
Ms. Wogan declined to speculate on the task force's future, repeating her assertion that its record would speak for itself.
Sheriff Brown said his office now will operate a four-person drug strike force in the county. Chief Leppo said last month that his department would operate a two-person drug investigation unit in Westminster.
The sheriff said yesterday that he did not take lightly his decision to leave the task force, an entity he has strongly supported since he was first elected five years ago.
He said he was upset with how his deputies and other task force members were forced to report to a nonpolice investigator in the state's attorney's office, rather than an assistant state's attorney.
"The cooperative spirit which launched and sustained the task force over the past seven years has now vanished, and has been replaced with what I can only describe as antagonism and bickering," the sheriff said.