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Results due soon on Rehrmann's study of creating countywide police agency


Within 10 days Harford residents can expect to learn the results of the county executive's study on shifting much of the authority of the Sheriff's Office to a countywide police agency.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann set that time frame Wednesday during the last of four open meetings she has held since May 13 on public safety issues.

In those meetings, Mrs. Rehrmann has told about 150 selected guests and county residents that the basis for her plan to strip most law enforcement duties from the sheriff is a 3 1/2 -year-old study that recommended creating a county police force headed by a police chief.

That study, begun in April 1988, was conducted by Police Executive Research Forum under the previous administration of Habern W. Freeman Jr. It was completed in December 1989.

PERF, a Washington-based consulting firm for police agencies, was hired to answer 11 questions developed by a citizen's task force on policing appointed by Mr. Freeman.

The study made more than 100 recommendations, many of which were intended to modernize law enforcement techniques in the Sheriff's Office.

A summary of the PERF study's findings mainly showed that the Sheriff's Office patrolling duties were carried out efficiently but did nothave adequate clerical support.

The study also found that the Sheriff's Office needed improvement in the areas of rank and assignment structure, but that work schedules established a unity of command to meet the county's needs. Minor staffing adjustments could compensate for peak weekend hours, the study showed.

The PERF study recommended increased staffing at the Harford Detention Center to reduce overtime costs and suggested the communications dispatch division be combined with fire and 911 dispatch services to save on duplicated equipment and employees.

It recommended combining personnel and purchasing functions, suggesting county administrators was better able to provide the sheriff with those services.

Police force rejected once

Mr. Freeman said last week that implementation of many of the study's recommendations began immediately after it was completed. Most of the other recommendations have since been implemented, Sheriff Robert E. Comes said.

Mr. Freeman cited two reasons for not implementing the study's recommendation to create a county police force: cost and the opinion of Dr. Carl Klockars, a University of Delaware professor of criminology whom the citizen's task force hired in 1987 as a technical consultant to help it form the 11 questions.

"The estimated cost of implementation [$150,000-$200,000] was not my main concern," Mr. Freeman said. "I had a lot of confidence in Dr. Klockars and, in his opinion, creating a county police force was not necessary. The Sheriff's Office basically had good people doing a good job."

Mrs. Rehrmann, who replaced Mr. Freeman as county executive after the November 1990 elections, formed an in-house work group bolstered by two consultants from the state Department of Public Safety last month to determine whether her administration should create a county police force and how to take control of the Detention Center.

Mrs. Rehrmann said recent publicity about "management problems" at the Harford Detention Center prompted her to begin developing legislation that would transfer the operation of the jail to the county.

"The job description and salary structure for a full-time warden already is in the budget for fiscal year 1994," she said.

Mrs. Rehrmann also reiterated her intention for the county to take control of the jail within nine months and to shift police, fire and 911 communications to a yet-to-be-built Emergency Operations Center in Hickory within 18 months.

Mrs. Rehrmann's desire to place the law enforcement division of the Sheriff's Office under the authority of a police chief appointed by the county executive has a less definitive time frame.

"All three areas -- Detention Center, dispatch and law enforcement -- will have to be phased in," she said. "We just don't have all the details worked out yet."

Anticipating proposed legislation, the County Council told Mrs. Rehrmann that it will not accept any legislation until its August meeting.

The county executive could not say how much the changes she seeks would cost. "It may be more [than the PERF study's estimate], or it may be less," she said, adding that regardless of ++ the work group's determinations, Harford residents should expect to pay more for the county's growing safety needs.

Costs and politics

Public concerns have centered on those unknown costs and on the major political issue: should the county's top law enforcement authority answer to the voters or to the county executive.

Mrs. Rehrmann was quick to point out that deputies now serve at the "pleasure of the sheriff," with no job security, and that the Sheriff's Office suffers before each sheriff's election as deputies must choose what candidate to support.

She said that in the last two sheriff's elections, in which incumbents were ousted, the Sheriff's Office also suffered in the wake of the elections as the new sheriffs shuffled assignments.

Asked how politics would be eliminated if a police chief were installed to run a county police force, Mrs. Rehrmann said a police chief could be named by the county executive subject to approval by the County Council with limits on the causes for dismissal.

"I don't know yet what those limits should be, but we're working on it," she said.

She said the greatest advantage to having a police chief would come in the selection process based on the criteria of education and experience.

Sheriff Comes has repeatedly stressed how many improvements based on the PERF study's recommendations have been implemented, citing centralized processing for all police agencies and improvements in community policing as two major examples.

He insisted his efforts to hire a full-time warden have been cut from his last two budget requests.

Management problems cited

Mrs. Rehrmann contended Sheriff Comes never made the warden position a priority item. She said her main concern was the sheriff's failure to recognize serious management problems at the Detention Center.

The county executive said she could not be more specific about those alleged problems because of the pending investigation by the state's Attorney General. She and Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly requested that investigation last month, asking that the operation of the detention center be reviewed in the wake of a March 1, 1992, death of an inmate there and more recent allegations of sexual misconduct between guards and inmates.

In an apparent response, Sheriff Comes went a step further, calling on the attorney general to investigate the county executive, the state's attorney, the FBI and everyone else who was involved in the 15-month investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of William M. Ford, of Wilmington, Del.

The 28-year-old laborer was found dead in a jail isolation cell with a knotted pillow case tied around his neck.

The initial investigation by Detention Center personnel ruled Mr. Ford's death a suicide, but an autopsy indicated Mr. Ford had suffered a fractured larynx, an injury several independent pathologists have said is almost never self-inflicted. The autopsy also revealed semen in Mr. Ford's rectum, suggesting he had been sexually molested.

Under threat of a possible lawsuit, the county paid $400,000 to Mr. Ford's family to end any future civil liability.

No one has been charged in the incident, but the investigation continues as results of DNA tests performed on three guards are awaited. Those results could clear the guards, lead to an indictment or be inconclusive.

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