Commanders write to back police chief in Balto. County

2 majors, captain attack FOP criticism of Sheridan

Other top officers question letter

January 16, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A month after the Fraternal Order of Police published a critique of Baltimore County Police Chief Terrance B. Sheridan's leadership and with his position in the new administration unclear, several high-ranking police commanders sent a letter to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. in support of Sheridan.

Now, that letter has become an issue within the department because, officers said, it was not endorsed by all 37 of the commanders, and some of the supervisors feared that if they did not support it, they would face retaliation.

The letter, which was signed by two majors and a captain on behalf of top police supervisors, said, "We believe the Chief has performed admirably in service to the people of Baltimore County." The letter also attacked the validity of the FOP's criticisms of Sheridan published in the union's December newsletter.

"There's a great deal of unrest in this department," said Cole B. Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4. "This is an example of intimidation tactics."

Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Sheridan, said the chief had nothing to do with introducing or circulating the letter: "He did not initiate the letter. He has not seen the letter. And he will not comment on the letter."

Smith received the letter yesterday, his office confirmed. But he could not be reached for comment. His spokeswoman, Elise Armacost, said she did not know whether he had seen the letter or read the FOP's newsletter. She said Smith was still in the process of making decisions about department-head appointments.

Several police commanders, who asked to not be identified, said they feared they would be transferred from their assignments or passed for promotions if they didn't agree that sending the letter to Smith was a good idea.

"I can't retire yet," said one commander, who added that he feared retaliation if he were identified. "I don't want the blood on the floor to be mine."

Another commander, who also sought anonymity, said he was told that the letter - printed on Police Department stationery - would help when it was time to negotiate wages and benefits for supervisors, who are classified as the police "supervisory management and confidential group."

He added, "We weren't shown a copy of the letter before it was sent."

Commanders, including captains, majors and colonels, are merit employees and cannot be fired by the chief. However, Weston said, "It puts a commander in a heck of a position. If you don't sign it, your career assignments and career advancement is in jeopardy."

One of the authors of the letter, Maj. John Krach, who signed his name to the letter along with Maj. James Johnson and Capt. Michael DiPaula, said they intentionally did not ask other commanders to sign their names to the letter so that no one would feel pressured.

"Members of the executive committee either were called or asked if they were supportive of sending a letter," Krach said. "That's why we didn't vote in a large forum where everyone could see everyone else."

He said that more than 75 percent of the 37 commanders agreed to send the letter, which called the FOP's comments about Sheridan "unprecedented and without merit."

Krach said the commanders did not feel that Sheridan was in jeopardy of losing his job. "We just felt [the FOP] needed to be responded to," he said.

Last month's editorial by Weston blasted the chief's performance, saying that Sheridan should have taken a stronger position on out-of-date equipment such as the laptop computers in patrol cars. It also said Sheridan had unjustly suspended officers, unfairly transferred officers and sidestepped the promotional process.

Toohey said the commentary on Sheridan contained multiple inaccuracies. For example, he said, another county agency - not Sheridan - is responsible for deciding to upgrade the computers, and that the chief has long had the right to assign officers to certain units, a practice that predates Sheridan.

Weston said he stands by his criticism. "The grievances are well documented," he said.

Weston has stopped short of calling for Sheridan's replacement. But he said, "I think the FOP and the chief need a better working relationship. I believe that a department of this size - responsible for policing three-quarters of a million people - needs to operate with more of a vision, with goals that identify the changing demographics in Baltimore County."

Although officers said not everyone agrees with Weston either, they said some friction between the chief and the FOP is natural. "They're not always going to agree," said Lt. Jerry Foracappo, a FOP member. "I think Cole's message was born out of frustration with some issues. But I personally don't think Sheridan's patriotism should have been questioned."

Sheridan, a former high-ranking Maryland State Police commander, was appointed as chief by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in 1996. Sheridan's supporters say his tenure has represented a significant return to crime-fighting and less emphasis on "fuzzy" programs such as community policing.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a former county police officer, said, "I don't think the Police Department's executive corps should have sent a letter to the county executive. It's inappropriate for the commanders to get involved with the appointments of department heads."

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