Harford sheriff: Crime low but prescription drugs main problem

The Harford County Sheriff's Office and the State's Attorney Office presented two different views on how high crime really is during a county council budget work session Wednesday.

Sheriff Jesse Bane said crime is at an all-time low and the county has one of the lowest crime rates in the state.

State's Attorney Joe Cassilly, meanwhile, said the crime decrease has not played out in his office.

"Unfortunately, we're not seeing that where we are, partly because measurements of crime rates tend to be part 1 crimes , which are more serious, and I'm glad they're going down," Cassilly said, explaining he is seeing more walk-ins and thinks residents may be bringing more complaints to his office without going to the police.

"We end up doing a lot of the investigation," he said. "We've increased people dealing with that, we've increased number of contacts we're making with citizens."

Bane said most of the crime that he has seen in the county has to do with drugs.

"I don't want to take a position on whether drugs should be legalized or not legalized, but I will tell you the [most abused drug] is pills," he said. "The most serious problem we have in Harford County that drives most of our concern and most of our crime is drugs."

Bane said the amount of money his office spends on dealing with drug-related offenses is "phenomenal."

Bane also said the crime rate is the lowest it has been since at least 1975, and is the fifth lowest in the state. By comparison, Cecil County is 20th.

"In that period of time, 35 years, we have almost doubled the population of the county and we have more than cut the crime rate in half," he said. "That's for all the law enforcement in Harford County, it's not just the sheriff's office."

Bane said he never would have believed the numbers would be that low when he was first elected.

"Our crime rate will probably drop even more next year. That is incredible," he said. "I think we're doing the job right."

Because of pills, "our suicide rate among our young people is increasing," he added.

Bane said the office is also hoping to better address the needs of the many Harford inmates diagnosed with mental illness by launching the behavioral health unit.

He said he has hired several new psychiatrists and psychologists for the jail.

Bane also said he is very concerned about the economy forcing him to cut back services because the only way he has been able to provide services this year is by aggressively searching for grants.

He said if the budget is passed as proposed, he would probably lose all his grant money.

Council President Billy Boniface asked if anyone oversaw the office's substantial grant program. Bane replied two deputies are responsible for identifying grants, but there is no one specific grant-related employee.

Councilman Dion Guthrie congratulated Bane on the crime rate and said he could certainly attest to that in his district.

"It has made a great improvement in the area and [I] hope you're not talking about future sheriffs," Guthrie joked. "With these kinds of statistics I don't want you to go anywhere."

Guthrie also called the new southern precinct "a gem" and jokingly questioned Bane's assertion that drug-related crimes have risen since drugs were allowed to be advertised on television.

Guthrie said he does not know why anyone would want to take the advertised drugs when they have so many possible side effects.

"You may get a good night's sleep but you may never wake up," he said.

Councilman Joe Woods also wondered why the sheriff's office pays for computer technology like Laserfiche, which he believed could be used by any county agency but which apparently does not apply to the sheriff's office, which has its own technology.

"It's another $208,000 expense that I thought any government agency could use," Woods said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti asked why the office needs more deputies if the crime rate is so low.

"I have to tell you we're paying a lot of overtime because we don't have the deputies," Bane replied, adding that while in the past the office might have sent one deputy to an incident, today it sends two, three or four.

He mentioned the April 9 incident at Harford Community College, where authorities responded to a possibly homicidal man.

"You have a major situation like you did at the college last week; we had to pull every deputy off the road patrol everywhere in the case of an active shooter," Bane said.

"My deputies are stressed," he said. "There are times when they run from one call to the next; they don't even have time to do the reports, just to handle the calls that are out there."

Bane also said the amount of service his office can provide to the Route 40 area is "nothing" compared to what Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace can provide to their residents.

"The numbers just aren't there," he said about his deputies.

He pointed out the population of Joppa is probably larger than all three municipalities combined, and Edgewood is "really the largest population center in the county," the size of two municipalities combined.

On the other hand, he noted the sheriff's office also does a lot of processing of prisoners and provides other services for the municipalities.

Councilman Chad Shrodes congratulated the sheriff on the crime rate but said he is worried about the traffic fatality rate.

He said he believed more than half of the fatalities this past year are from northern Harford County, the district he represents.

"It seems like things sort of shifted on us," he said. "It's still a very concerning issue."

Boniface called the office's re-entry program "outstanding."

He also said the capital budget should be amended to install cameras in school.

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