Direct electoral control of the county sheriff has always had a strong democratic appeal. But the value of that control has eroded with the increasing complexity and growing needs of police protection in Harford County, and the disturbing politicization of the sheriff's office.
In the Baltimore region, only Harford retains an elected sheriff as the head of its law enforcement agency. When Harford was largely rural and smaller, the sheriff's office could satisfactorily keep the peace and run the county jail. And for two decades, Harford had a single sheriff who added political stability to the system.
For more than a decade, however, the office has become a revolving door of political opportunity and intrigue. Single-term incumbents are voted out, deputies campaign for or against their boss, the spoils of office are dispensed politically. Deputies seriously affect the election outcome.
That's not the kind of electoral political accountability or responsibility needed to carry out modern law enforcement in Harford. County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's proposal to create a county police force and take over the detention center is a sound idea that would address this problem and improve Harford's public safety system.
The sheriff's $16 million annual budget is provided by the county, which is also financially liable for his actions. The county government has settled several claims for his actions outside its control.
That strongly argues for police and jail functions to be transferred to county government. So do the allegations of sexual and drug misconduct by sheriff employees, sloppy management practices and the erosion of public confidence in the office.
These current problems might defeat the incumbent, Sheriff Robert E. Comes, in next year's election. But the politics will continue, and the time has come to change the system to one of professional, stable management. A 1988 task force recommended this change, and the arguments are even more persuasive today. The $100,000 annual extra cost of a police force is insignificant.
A county police force under a professional chief, and a detention center under an experienced warden, will help to restore public credibility, be more efficient, more accountable to government and better managed. The sheriff, a state office, would serve court papers and provide court security.
A public hearing on the proposed legislation will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at C. Milton Wright High School. We urge Harford countians to participate.