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Control of police debated Councilman wants voters to decide if county takes reins


Harford voters ought to decide whether a county police force should take control of law enforcement and the detention center, says a county councilman.

The councilman, Robert S. Wagner, a Republican from District E, faulted the county executive's bid to strip the sheriff's office of most authority midway through the sheriff's term and said he hopes voters can decide the matter in November 1994.

"The people elected whom they wanted as their chief law enforcement officer in 1990," Mr. Wagner said. "The administration is attempting to interrupt that vote and wants the county residents to pay the tab."

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's proposed legislation is to be introduced at the County Council's Aug. 10 meeting.

She wants the operation of the detention center, police communications and criminal patrol to be transferred from the sheriff's office to the county. The sheriff would be relegated to providing courthouse security and serving court papers.

Mrs. Rehrmann broached the idea in May and formed a panel to study the shifting of control of the dispatch, jail and criminal patrol operations from the sheriff's office to a countywide police force.

She said her move came in response to the jail's handling of the death of William M. Ford in March 1992. The county paid Mr. Ford's family $400,000 on April 26 after the family threatened to sue, asserting that he had been raped and murdered. A grand jury is investigating his death. No one has been charged.

Mrs. Rehrmann said her proposed legislation would bring "stability, increased efficiency and accountability" to law enforcement and the jail.

If the council passes the executive's bill, voters could petition to put the police issue on the November 1994 ballot, by collecting enough signatures within 60 days after the executive has signed the bill into law.

The petition would require 4,820 signatures, or 5 percent of registeredvoters in the last general election.

While Mr. Wagner hopes for a referendum, other council members withheld judgment on the executive's idea or the possibility of voters deciding.

Council members said the cost of transition to a countywide force remains unresolved and will be a key factor in their decision.

Theresa Pierno, a Democrat from District C, said she believes it ++ is premature to talk about a referendum. She said she has not been swamped by letters from constituents.

"I want to wait at least for the [council's] public hearing," she said. "I don't think at this point the issue is that controversial."

Citizens' input

Mrs. Pierno said that open meetings on the executive's idea earlier this summer brought some public comments on the cost and the quality of service.

"But I want to hear from the citizens of the county on the issue of control and the county's authority," Mrs. Pierno said. "I don't think anyone wants a political figure to have total authority over the police force."

Joanne Parrot, a Republican from District B, said she is "leaning toward a countywide police force" but added that she would decide after a public hearing before the council.

Susan Heselton, a Republican from District A, said she, too, will likely support a countywide force. But she said she needs to know definite costs and to review the final legislation before committing to it.

The county's explosive population growth makes the case for a countywide police force more convincing, she said, adding, "We are no longer a small community, whether we like it or not."

The county has said it will cost $279,000 in the first year to carry out the transfer. That figure does not include related costs already budgeted, such as a salary for a warden to oversee the county jail.

But Carl B. Klockars, consultant to the sheriff and the Maryland Sheriff's Association, dismissed the idea that a county police force could operate more efficiently than the sheriff's office. He predicted transition costs of nearly $1 million.

Mr. Klockars, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, is paid by the Maryland Sheriff's Association. The association declined to say how much he receives.

Harford spends less for police

Mr. Klockars cited statistics indicating that Harford County spends about half as much per capita for police services as any other county in the state.

Last week, Mr. Klockars provided state statistics for fiscal year .. 1992 that show Harford spends $52 per capita on police services. Howard County, with the second-lowest spending, paid per capita for police services in the same fiscal year.

That county, with its 1990 population of 187,338, most closely resembled Harford's 1990 census total of 182,132.

The cost per capita of police services in Harford County, in Mr. Klockars' computation, does not include expenses related to corrections or court services.

Mr. Klockars disagrees with the county's method of dividing the total sheriff's office proposed budget of $15.9 million by the total population to calculate operating costs.

Using the county's method, police services would cost about $80 per capita.

Harford residents also receive services from the state police and the municipal police forces in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Residents of the three municipalities receive a tax break from the county, and part of that is for municipal police forces, Mrs. Rehrmann said.

Lawmakers need time to wade through the statistics to decide whatit all means and must ensure that the legislation is not hurried, Mr. Wagner said.

The bill before the council, which requires a majority vote to pass, has received the support of the Sheriff's Deputies Union. Deputies cited pressure they endure every four years to support the incumbent or the challenger before an election.

They say a countywide force also would end the shuffling of top staff that occurs when each new sheriff takes office and rewards his supporters.

The issue of creating a police force led by a chief accountable tothe county executive is not new to the county. A citizens task force, created by then-County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr., studied the idea extensively five years ago.

The task force's 185-page report, completed in December 1988, included as one of 114 recommended changes that the county " move toward creating a county police force.

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