Police cruisers, politics can't mix Off-duty officers ordered to stop using cars to aid campaign

October 27, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Five Howard County off-duty police officers were on special assignment yesterday afternoon as they rode their squad cars through the Columbia village of River Hill: Door-dropping campaign literature for their former police chief, Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey.

It was the first day of a weeklong volunteer effort by more than two dozen police officers, working for a candidate who has promised to increase their salaries. Within a few hours, though, Chief Wayne Livesay ordered the cruisers off the campaign trail after he was alerted to the activity.

"We've told them to knock it off," Livesay said yesterday. "They can't use police vehicles for political purposes."

Mixing police business with politics has been a latent risk for Robey's campaign ever since Robey retired as police chief in January to run for the county's top job. At least 42 police officers, including Livesay and other top-ranking officers, have given money to Robey's campaign, and many have volunteered their time as well.

Republican county executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader heard that officers were campaigning in River Hill neighborhoods with their take-home police cruisers and notified the county administration.

"They just don't understand where the lines are," said Schrader, who has been critical of county employee involvement in Robey's campaign. "I was just a little stunned by the lack of judgment."

Officers are allowed to use take-home cruisers on personal errands to increase visibility, but Livesay and Robey both said they told officers at the beginning of Robey's campaign to avoid politicking on county time or with county resources. Robey and his campaign manager, former police Lt. Herman Charity, said they didn't know yesterday's volunteers would be driving squad cars.

"We just don't want them using county equipment to politick," Charity said. "We haven't been able to do it in the past, and we're not going do it now because of [former] Chief Robey. It sends the wrong message to the public."

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Maryland's Common Cause, called it a "misuse of public office" that may violate ethics and personnel laws about the use of public facilities for private gain.

"Not only is it using the public vehicle for a partisan political activity, but it gives the impression that the partisan political activity is supported by the public police department," Skullney said.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who is leaving office this year, said the use of cruisers was "wrong" and the county would look into what happened.

Livesay said he didn't believe the officers' use of the cars was illegal, but he called it "poor taste." He said he expected no one to be disciplined as long as it doesn't happen again.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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