An Elected Police Chief? Why Not?


Havre de Grace. -- For years now, Harford County has been an anomaly among Maryland's large and medium-sized jurisdictions because its police force has been headed by an elected politician instead of a bureaucrat.

Bureaucrats and local policy wonks find this displeasing. The practice of letting the voters select the top police officer, who in Harford County is the sheriff, seems dangerous to those who put their faith in resumes, advanced degrees and other "professional" qualifications. It doesn't defer sufficiently to expert opinion. What do the voters know, anyway?

You might think politicians would have more confidence than bureaucrats in the wisdom of the electorate, but they don't. In Harford County, there's long been a desire on the part of various elected officials to nudge the elected sheriff, whoever he might be, out of the law-enforcement picture. Recently, in the wake of a horrible scandal in the county jail, the elbows have been really flying.

All of this is interesting, not so much as an exercise in local power politics as an expression of political philosophy. To what extent should we elect people to important jobs in local government, and to what extent should we appoint them? How that question is answered says a lot about the state of our society.

Traditionally, rural areas rely on elections more than cities and suburbs. Rural Western states still elect people to some statewide positions which are appointive everywhere else. This has certain advantages. For one thing, it's a lot easier to fire a politician than a civil servant.

As Maryland has become more urban, it has dropped various elected offices -- county surveyors, county treasurers, orphan's court judges and so forth. Clerks of the county circuit courts and county registers of wills are still elected, but mostly because hardly anyone wants these unexciting positions.

Under steady pressure from the lawyers' lobby, a.k.a. the bar association, and from various well-meaning groups naively hoping to "take politics out of the courts," elected judgeships in Maryland have been steadily reduced. Now only seats on the circuit court can still be filled by contested elections, and the bureaucratically-minded want to change that, too.

It may not make any difference if a county has an elected treasurer or register of wills, but there are some real benefits to making a judge face the voters every 15 years. It's a useful antidote to judicial arrogance, and if it also means that an occasional "good" but unpopular judge gets dumped, what's the harm in that?

The question of electing a county's top law-enforcement officer is a little trickier.

Because the elective office of sheriff is established in Maryland by the state constitution, when a county decides it wants to have an appointed police chief, it can't just fire the sheriff. First it has to create a county police force for the new chief to head. Usually this means changing the identity of those trained, armed and uniformed people driving around in patrol cars from "sheriff's deputies" to "county police officers."

But then what do you do with the sheriff? Usually you leave him alone, in charge of a much-reduced duplicate force that can be used to serve subpoenas for the court, run the jail or just polish its nightsticks. This doesn't make much sense, but it's the time-honored practice. All the big Maryland counties with police forces still have sheriffs, although they don't have any real use for them.

Over the long haul, it probably doesn't make much difference whether the head of a police department is elected or appointed. Whatever the procedure, there will be a few good leaders, plenty of average ones and a handful of losers. Eventually it evens out.

A good top cop who commands the respect of the public, the support of the politicians, and the loyalty of his subordinates is a rare asset for any jurisdiction, whether he's elected or appointed. Baltimore County had such a man in Chief Neil Behan. For almost 20 years, Harford County had one in Sheriff William Kunkel.

Sheriff Kunkel was elected five times, the last in 1978. He was so popular locally, and such a professional, that while he was in office no effort to create a "county police force" could get off the ground. The sheriff's department did the job to the public's satisfaction, whatever the experts thought.

Since Mr. Kunkel's retirement, Harford County has had a series of one-term sheriffs. Each had certain strengths, but none demonstrated the blend of political and administrative skills needed to keep both the voters and the department happy. Even so, the department kept rolling along, functioning at least as smoothly as the police forces in other counties. It had its problems, but so did they.

Taking the process of choosing a new top cop away from the voters may make textbook sense. But as a practical matter it's likely to be a waste of time, and just about certain to be a waste of money.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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