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Harford Sheriff's Office having 'difficult, difficult time' filling jobs, Gahler tells County Council

Harford Sheriff Jeff Gahler says recruitment of new deputies and law enforcement officers in general is the most difficult he has seen in his 30-year career.
Harford Sheriff Jeff Gahler says recruitment of new deputies and law enforcement officers in general is the most difficult he has seen in his 30-year career.(MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Recruitment remains a major problem for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, as the agency joins others in struggling to fill jobs during a difficult time for law enforcement nationwide, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told the County Council during a Monday review of his 2017 budget.

The recruitment difficulties are not because of any special requirements for job candidates coming from the Sheriff's Office. It is simply more difficult to find people "who have lived a morally correct life" than he has ever seen, Gahler said.

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He also blamed the "general perception" of law enforcement with the fact that "minority recruitment of females and blacks is way down across the board."

"We currently have seven law enforcement vacancies and we are looking at 12 more" in the near future, with pending retirements, Gahler told the council, explaining the agency recently struggled to fill 15 vacancies "and we are right back to where we were."

"It's simply now, the applicant pool is not staying ahead of our needs," he said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is proposing 3 percent merit-based salary increases for the Sheriff's Office, as for other county employees, with increases of up to 9 percent for some Sheriff's Office personnel. Those eligible for 9 percent merit increases are deputy first class and senior deputy officers, while corporals will receive 6 percent merit raises.

The proposed $74.6 million budget for the Sheriff's Office would mark an increase of about $4 million from the current budget. The County Council has until June 1 to vote on the entire county budget.

The Sheriff's Office currently has 529 authorized full-time positions, according to budget documents, of which 285 are sworn law enforcement officers, including 29 corporals, 85 senior deputies first class and 107 deputies first class. The agency has had 20 retirements this fiscal year, about half of which are in the sworn deputies ranks. The Sheriff's Office also runs the county detention center and provides security for the Circuit Court and county government offices.

Gahler said he heard Baltimore Police Department has "a greater number of vacancies they are trying to recruit for and cannot fill. We have opened up permanent lateral applications to try to stay on top of what we are losing."

The attempt to fill positions laterally is "unparalleled in my three decades of law enforcement," Gahler said, adding he also is hoping for 36 correctional deputies that would allow the Sheriff's Office to make full use of the Detention Center. Glassman did not fund position increases, however.

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He also wanted to set up a seven-person unit to act as a heroin intervention team, in light of the new protocol he began last year in responding to calls for heroin overdoses.

The response changes have left the agency with less time to concentrate on mid-level and upper-level drug dealers, Gahler said.

The Sheriff's Office wants one deputy to serve at Aberdeen's Center for Educational Opportunity, the county's alternative education program, he said.

The school is currently being staffed by rotating one deputy out of each county high school once a week, he said, and "to rotate school officers is not, in my opinion, the best solution for us."

"We are having a difficult, difficult time finding qualified candidates," he added.

The recruitment challenges result partly from competition with other law enforcement agencies, Gahler said, and the Sheriff's Office is conducting a salary study to see how the department compares with its peers.

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Gahler nevertheless said the reputation of the Sheriff's Office remains a positive one.

Five of the last seven employees hired came from Baltimore Police Department, he said.

"There is a big difference in the way the Harford County Sheriff's Office is being perceived and how Baltimore [Police Department] is being perceived," he said. "We just want to keep that being a trend."

Council President Richard Slutzky said he talked to a Baltimore police officer lately who was "very complimentary" about the Sherif's Office being part of the community.

"Sometimes in Baltimore City, they don't always live in the community," Slutzky said about law enforcement. "This is a community atmosphere, as opposed to less of a community atmosphere in some other environments."

Community support

With nearly three months having passed since the Feb. 10 fatal shootings of Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and DFC Mark Logsdon shocked the county, Gahler again thanked the county for its continued support.

He said he does not have the final total that has been donated to the Sheriff's Office Benevolent Fund so far but "I fully suspect it is going to be in the seven-digit category."

About community support, "we see it; we continue to see it," Gahler said.

Earlier that day, the franchise owner of Chick-fil-A came by to bring lunch for the Sheriff's Office, he said.

The man "was actually in the [Abingdon] Panera Bread when the shootings occurred," Gahler said, calling the outpouring "simply remarkable and amazing."

"It just speaks volumes about what a wonderful county we have to live in," Gahler said.

Besides state bills to assist the fallen deputies' families with pension benefits and rename part of Route 924 "Heroes Highway," Baltimore Sen. Catherine Pugh amended a bill to add a property tax exemption for DFC Mark Logsdon's widow, he said.

"Catherine Pugh was kind enough to put that on one of her bills," Gahler said. "Now Jen Logsdon has one more thing off of her plate."

Councilman Jim McMahan thanked the Sheriff's Office for their response during an April 21 standoff and shooting of an off-duty Baltimore County Police officer in Bel Air's Bright Oaks community.

"Today, our law enforcement officers are on the front lines," McMahan said, saying their challenges are now similar to those of soldiers in the past.

"Our officers are obviously suffering from [post-traumatic stress syndrome]," Councilman Jim McMahan told Gahler. "They see things every week that no person should see and they have to deal with that, and I know it was extremely difficult for your department to deal with an individual from another department who was obviously suffering from PTSD."

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