The Harford County administration is moving to shift control of the Detention Center from the Sheriff's Office to a new, countywide police agency and corrections department.
County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann appointed a committee to study the feasibility of reducing the role of the sheriff to courthouse security and serving court papers. The sheriff's responsibilities now include countywide police communications and criminal patrol.
The announcement came amid increasing criticism of the jail's management, especially over last year's handling of the suspicious death of William M. Ford, 28, who was found in an isolation cell at the Detention Center March 1, 1992, with a knotted pillowcase around his neck. An autopsy found that he had been strangled.
Mrs. Rehrmann said that a 30-day study to evaluate law enforcement, police and emergency communications and the Detention Center will lead to quick legislative action to remedy what she called "management problems" in the Sheriff's Office.
Mrs. Rehrmann met with Sheriff Robert E. Comes on Tuesday. She expressed disappointment yesterday that he objected to her plan. She added, however, that he said he would cooperate with the study to the extent that he thought he should.
Last night, however, the sheriff said he has full law enforcement powers for the county plus the Detention Center. "I intend to oppose any change," he said.
Sheriff Comes said he hopes to continue as sheriff and "expects to run for another term [next year]."
The legislation, which Mrs. Rehrmann said is already being drafted, will take control of the Detention Center away from the sheriff.
The work group, which met for the first time yesterday afternoon, is composed of members of the Rehrmann administration plus Lt. William LeFevre of the Maryland State Police and Robert Gibson of the research and planning division of the state department of public safety.
After public hearings are held, the bill must be passed by the County Council. It would become law 60 days later.
The investigation of Mr. Ford's death, initially ruled a suicide by the Sheriff's Office, was conducted by jail officials. No one has been charged in the death, but sources close to the investigation said Detention Center personnel may have destroyed evidence when Mr. Ford's jail-issued clothing and cell were cleaned.
Mr. Ford, a Wilmington, Del., laborer, was serving a 30-day sentence for driving while intoxicated.
The Ford case cost county taxpayers $400,000 paid last week to the man's family in an out-of-court settlement to end any civil liability by the county.
Mrs. Rehrmann would not elaborate on particular management problems she had cited last month in calling for a state attorney general's investigation of the Detention Center. She said that probe began last week.
On Tuesday, the Harford County grand jury indicted former Detention Center guard Mitchell L. Johnson on charges of raping a female inmate in the jail Feb. 3. He was fired by Sheriff Comes on April 5 over the alleged incident.
Mr. Johnson of Abingdon surrendered to sheriff's deputies at 4:30 p.m. yesterday. He was released after posting $10,000 bond.