A Sheriff's Lot Can Be a Tricky One


When he pinned on his badge for the first time a year and a half ago, Anne Arundel County Sheriff Robert Pepersack felt as if he had just inherited something sacred. A legacy of noble lawmen, from the High Sheriffs of Saxon England to the Gary Cooper-esque men who once ruled the West, now rested in his hands.

Mr. Pepersack still believes in the nobility of his office. But life as county sheriff hasn't quite turned out the way he'd expected.

He never expected it to be so political.

Mr. Pepersack has had a terrible time getting along with County Executive Robert R. Neall, and last month the County Council humiliated him by subpoenaing him to answer questions about his budget.

But he is not the only, nor the first, sheriff to run into trouble with local government. The relationship, as set forth in the state constitution, is complicated and prone to disagreements.

"It breeds conflict," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Mr. Pepersack's brother, Norman, the Baltimore County sheriff, has had disputes with county government since his election in 1990. His efforts to equip his deputies with emergency lights and sirens sparked a disagreement with Police Chief Cornelius J. Beehan, who saw it as an encroachment on his territory.

In Calvert County, Sheriff L.C. "Bootsie" Stinnett and the county commissioners are settling a dispute over who bears responsibility for the local detention center.

Several years ago in Harford County, the only metropolitan charter county where the sheriff's office serves as the major law enforcement agency, Habern Freeman, the former county executive, and Dominick Mele, the former sheriff, frequently argued over who had ultimate authority over police matters.

At one point, Mr. Freeman looked into setting up a county police department. He eventually abandoned that idea, but only after the sheriff agreed to follow a consultant's recommendations for making the office more accountable to the county.

Efforts to restrict the office of sheriff, which originated in England more than 1,000 years ago, are nothing new.

Under common law, the early "shire reeves," charged with custody of the county to preserve the interests of the crown and keep the peace, had broad powers ranging from tax collection to judicial duties. They were answerable only to the king.

Mr. Pepersack said recently, "All my troubles began in 1215, at Runnymede." In a way, he's right. The Magna Carta significantly limited the sheriff's powers and made him responsible to the people instead of to the king.

Today, the responsibilities of sheriffs in Maryland and their scope of authority vary from county to county. Local jurisdictions may, through state legislation, eliminate any of the five duties assigned to him under common low -- prisoner transport, courthouse security, jail maintenance, service of legal papers and law enforcement.

But whether the sheriff serves as a major law enforcement power or a glorified security guard, his office lends itself to arguments over two always explosive issues: money and power.

Sheriffs, executives and councils all are elected. They answer to the people, not to each other, with one exception. The sheriff, who derives his authority from the state, gets his money from the county -- a fact that can severely limit a sheriff's activity.

"The sheriff is elected, and the people are his boss -- but only to the extent that he can get funding for what they want," explains Dale McAllister, Worcester County sheriff and president of the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

In turn, the county executive or commission has no power over the sheriff to set policy. Especially in counties where the sheriff's department serves as the main police force, that creates a significant gap in the executive's authority.

County leaders have a tendency to deny sheriffs the respect they grant to other elected leaders. Because they supply his money, they sometimes treat him instead as a department head -- a fact which infuriates sheriffs.

In counties where the sheriff enjoys popularity and a high profile, county leaders may be wary of his influence. In areas where his role is limited, they may dismiss him as unimportant.

The relationship between sheriffs and counties was enough of a concern that in the late 1960s leaders of Maryland's most recent Constitutional Convention proposed abolishing the position. The constitution was never ratified.

Mr. Neall, the Anne Arundel executive, believes that, at least in the charter counties, the constitution ought to be amended now so local governments could get rid of the sheriff.

But the chances of that happening seem slim. Virtually no one close to the issue will say -- publicly, at least -- that they agree. And even if the amendment were proposed, it would likely meet with resistance from voters reluctant to destroy a historical elected office.

"You start chopping it out, and you have less voice in government," Sheriff McAllister said. "I don't think people want that, whether it's the sheriff or the clerk of the court or the register of wills."

Given the fact that sheriffs are likely to be around for a long time, the real issue involves how they can minimize their office's innate potential for conflict so they can be truly useful and effective.

Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond Kight, who is serving his second term, said it's no accident that he's avoided problems like the ones the Pepersacks have experienced.

"I'm probably a better politician," he said.

Though we live in an era when it's not a compliment to be called a politician, the delicate nature of the sheriff's office demands high-quality political skills -- the ability to give and take, a willingness to listen to the other side, a certain skill in negotiation.

"If I want marked cars, I go over to the County Council and say, 'What do you think of this?' " says Mr. Kight, whose 100-plus deputies work in cooperation with the county police. "If they say I'm infringing on their territory, I go over and reconsider. I don't want wars with these people."

"There is no reason in this God's green earth why [the relationship between sheriffs and county governments] shouldn't work," Mr. McAllister said. "You've got to learn how to sit down and talk around your egos."

Said Assistant Attorney General Stuart Nathan, who handles the sheriffs' legal affairs, "Most of the problems I've heard could be handled just as well by a marriage counselor."

Sheriffs who used to be policemen in other law enforcement agencies -- the Pepersacks, for instance -- typically have difficulty making the transition to elected office.

"You take a cop and he runs for sheriff," said McAllister. "Now he has to be not only a cop, but a politician. That's hard for most cops.

"They've never had to deal with budgets. They've never had to deal with the County Council or go before the legislature. Sometimes it's hard for a cop to learn how to bend a bit, to talk nice. Most cops go straight after what they want. If they want to arrest a guy, they go out and get him."

Though well-intentioned, new sheriffs who want to raise the profile of their office often make the mistake of trying to make too many changes too quickly, Sheriff Kight said. It's fine to try to improve the office, "but you just can't come in and start changing things that have been a certain way for 200 years," he said. "You have to know how to get along."

In Anne Arundel, Mr. Pepersack's problems have stemmed almost entirely from his lack of political savvy. He spent too much money, then didn't know how to explain why he felt that wasn't his fault without angering the very people whose favor he needed to win.

"I guess I was naive," he said. "I thought my greatest challenge would be to professionalize this office, but I have found, to my dismay, that all of the boulders in the road are political."

Elise Armacost covers Anne Arundel County government for The Baltimore Sun.

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