Two months in, Harford Sheriff Gahler starting to get settled

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler sits down for an interview.

Jeff Gahler took office just about two months ago, and while some things are taking longer to do than he expected, the new Harford County Sheriff says he couldn't be happier.

"I'm excited every day to come to work. I enjoy the heck out of it," Gahler said last week during an interview at the agency's headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air. "It's long days, but I love it. It's what I worked hard for seven years to accomplish, to be sheriff of Harford County."


After nearly 28 years in law enforcement, he says he is finally in a position where he can make a difference – that's why he's sheriff. It's why he applied to the Maryland State Police when he was 18 – he loveslaw enforcement, he said.

But even as he worked his way through the ranks of the state police, Gahler always had a boss, or several, to whom he answered.


"It took me a long time to get here, and I'm now in a position to make a difference. I plan to work hard to make sure we do," Gahler said. "The sheriff answers to the citizens of Harford County, who evaluate your performance every four years."

Gahler wants to be out on the streets when he can, walking the beat, so to speak, as his deputies do. That's been a struggle the first two months, however, because of the administrative work involved in being sheriff.

He thought that within a week or so of taking office, he'd be able to get out and visit and tour each of the sheriff's office's properties – the northern and southern precincts, the criminal investigation division, etc.

"I thought it would be done in a week. It's taken seven," he said (at the time of the interview he still had one left to visit). "Things get in the way."

Gahler hasn't revamped the way the Harford County Sheriff's Office operates, but he has put his mark on the agency. He's brought in new people and consolidated some bureaus and he's put two deputies back out on patrol.

A couple policies have changed, though Gahler warned "there are a stack of policies that are coming."

He and his command staff, whom he hand-picked, are still going through all the agency's policies to determine where, and if, changes should be made.

But Gahler hasn't just been sitting in his office, which isn't decorated yet as he's waiting for it to be painted. The new sheriff has been out on the streets on patrol, and even witnessed the violation that led to the first arrest of 2015.

Gahler and Maj. William Davis were out on New Year's Eve in Gahler's unmarked SUV. They had visited the northern and southern precincts, visited with the men and women on patrol and even made a traffic stop of someone who rolled through a stop sign.

Around midnight, the two were in Edgewood, on Brookside Drive. Amid the sounds of fireworks, as they turned onto Treetop, Gahler heard a firearm discharged. A distinctive noise, he said.

He got out of his car and approached the house he thought it came from. After he looked over the back fence and saw there was a party inside, Gahler said, he called in assistance.

"It's been a while since I made an arrest. I called for backup," he said.


Another deputy arrested the person who fired the gun, but this week Gahler was scheduled to go to court as a witness in the case.

The sheriff plans to be out on the streets a lot, he said, more than they've ever seen a sheriff.

"There should be no one in this office that is above doing the law enforcement job," he said. "This is an administrative job, but I don't ever want to lose sight of being a police officer first, and the administrator second."

That may not necessarily mean that Gahler processes an arrest, but if he sees a situation where law enforcement is needed, he's going to step in and intervene.

"It's not just the deputies on the streets that are needed to fight crime or take action, it's every single sworn deputy in the department," he said.

Budget priorities

The sheriff's office budget for the next fiscal year was submitted by the former sheriff to the former county executive.

With two new administrations, there are bound to be changes. Gahler is scheduled to meet with County Executive Barry Glassman next week to discuss the budget.

His relationship with Glassman is "very good," he said, but admitted both of them have been going 150 mph and have only sat down to talk once so far.

The budget, as submitted, did not include funding for additional deputies. Gahler wants to hire more correctional deputies (there are no corrections officers, they're all deputies) to staff the jail expansion, which he says has been woefully underused since it was finished a few years ago.

Were the jail at a maximum population of 780 inmates, an additional 80 correctional deputies would be needed for full staffing. As of Mondaythere were 386 people incarcerated at the jail, but the number fluctuates daily.

Gahler realizes that's a "huge increase," and is hoping to get 18 to 30 to open part of the expansion.

Whether he gets those deputies remains to be seen, and will be part of Gahler's meeting with Glassman next week.

"We're in tough economic times, and the county executive is also working up an incentive package to be able to give raises," Gahler said.

Less top-heavy, other shifts

One of Gahler's first moves was to reduce the number of bureaus from five to three, merging investigation and patrol bureaus into the police operations bureau, supervised by Davis, and merging administrative and professional standards into the services and support bureau, run by Maj. John "Jack" Simpson.

Maj. Michael Gullion is at the jail with the new warden, Michael Capasso, in a civilian position.

His next goal is to reduce the number of captains, which he said will be done through attrition.

"I hope to carry that through other ranks. If we don't need them, I want to downsize them," he said.

Two deputies have returned to the streets, one from investigative affairs and one from the K9 unit, bringing the number of deputies on patrol to 132, not including investigators and supervisors. The sheriff's office has 585 total employees.

"I don't have the deputies to put back to patrol," he said, but said he's aiming for seven or eight, and plans a few more similar moves in the coming weeks.

He admits that creates a certain fear within the agency.

"There was a fear I was going to abolish all the specialized units," Gahler said, "but we definitely have a need for most everything that's out there."

That's not to say, though, some can't be restructured and merged, as was done with the bureaus, he said, adding he wants to make sure there's a proper supervisor to deputy ratio and that if there's an extra person who's not doing a law enforcement function, he wants to see if they can be pushed back to patrol.

"I've had nothing but a very good reaction to the changes we've made," Gahler said.

On the civilian side, the sheriff's office crime analysts have moved to a centralized location – unused office space in the southern precinct – rather than having them spread out.


"I want them to be part of the crime fighting, to work as a team, not as individuals, to offer products to the entire office to help us fight crime."


Campaign follow-ups

One of Gahler's campaign promises was to fight the heroin problem in Harford County and to do that narcotics detectives are being dispatched to all medical calls for heroin overdoses, fatal and non-fatal.

"We want to have a prompt response to look for evidentiary and investigative material," Gahler said last month. "It's a simple change."

A change he said is "just the first step to eradicating heroin from our communities."

Weekly COMSTAT meetings have also resumed. Each Wednesday morning, the three majors meet with other staff to discuss accountability and problem-solving, to discuss trends and patterns, to look at problem spots in reducing crime rates.

Gahler said he plans to open those meetings to other Harford law enforcement agencies as well as the Harford County Public Schools' head of security and safety.

"Eventually, we want to take them out to the community. They won't be able to talk about a case specifically, but we can take a version to the community so they can see how the mindset works when we respond to patrol," Gahler said. "It will help with the transparency of the organization."

The only new policy implemented so far deals with social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – and it was being worked on under the former sheriff.

Gahler wants his deputies to "be cognizant of what they post as a person," he said. He wants them to be aware of the comments they make and to be aware of whether they're representing themselves as a member of the sheriff's office or as a citizen.

He also wants to allow correctional deputies to be armed, if they have a permit, when they're coming to and from work at the Harford County Detention Center.

"First, I'm a firm believer in the Second Amendment," Gahler said.

Second, correctional deputies, like law enforcement deputies, live under the threat of violence. If someone has it out for a correctional deputy, they know their place of employment is one place they're guaranteed to find them, coming to and from work.

"If they're a target because they're an employee, I want them to have the opportunity to defend themselves," Gahler said.

The sheriff wants to take ownership of his office.

"I want this office to have a hand in not just complaining. It's easy to sit and complain about laws that are passed. I don't want to sit out and complain," he said. "We want to have a voice and we have proposed a few things for [the delegation to the Maryland General Assembly] to consider."

Among the bills he is hoping to see passed include:

• A bill supporting law-enforcement officers and assisting retired officers in obtaining their rights under Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, requiring all 150-plus law-enforcement agencies in Maryland to issue standard ID cards for any police officer who retires;

• A bill assisting Maryland residents in obtaining their handgun qualification licenses, which are required to purchase handguns in Maryland. Gahler wants to remove the training requirement provision from the Maryland State Police regulations for handgun qualifying licenses that requires applicants to fire one round of live ammunition before receiving their handgun qualification licenses qualification;

• A bill supporting victims of domestic violence and those people who have a credible threat against their safety. He would like to add language to the state police regulations for obtaining handgun permits that would allow the superintendent of the state police to temporarily waive the required 16-hour training to obtain a handgun permit in Maryland;

• A bill to limit tax refunds to people with active warrants in the county by including Harford in the existing Warrant Intercept Program, which authorizes an official of the federal, state or local government, charged with serving a criminal arrest warrant to certify to the Comptroller that an individual has an outstanding warrant and to request that the Comptroller withhold the individual's income tax refund.

On any given day, the Harford County Sheriff's Office has approximately 2,500 active arrest warrants.

"It is my strong belief that this program will be beneficial in helping to reduce the current number of warrants and provide an incentive for citizens to address warrants in a timely manner when they are issued," Gahler said recently.

Out and about

Don't be surprised to see Gahler out sitting around drinking coffee with people in the community. He's started a "Coffee With" series of sitting with residents and talking. He wants to have people express their pleasure or displeasure, tell him how they think things are going, how deputies are reacting, how they're perceived in the neighborhood.

The first one was at Ballpark Diner and drew a good crowd. The next one is 7 a.m. Feb. 24 at Coffee Coffee in the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.

In running the sheriff's office, "I want us to be aggressive, but not lose sight of treating people with respect. That's the example I want to set. There's nothing we're not willing to do to solve the smallest case. If we can solve it, let's solve it," Gahler said.

He also said he wants to be open and transparent: "We will make mistakes along the way. I don't want to hide from them, I want to stand up and own them and fix them."

Law enforcement has changed a lot since Gahler's first days in a uniform with the Maryland State Police. Today, computers allow deputies to print tickets from their cars. Information is at the tip of their fingertips, communication is much faster.

"But the basic job is still the same: patrol for criminal action and catch the bad guys," he said.

That's what he intends to do to keep Harford County as safe as he can.

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