Push to establish county police force set to begin


While last-minute politicians made their candidacies official by filing last week, a key issue that voters will be deciding this fall was being readied for the campaign as well.

People for a County Police Department, an organization anchored by members of the Harford County Deputy Sheriffs Union, announced plans to open its campaign headquarters at 43 N. Bond St. in Bel Air with a "parking lot party" next Sunday.

The question of whether Harford County government should create a police department, separate from the Sheriff's Office, to handle law enforcement responsibilities will be on the November ballot as a proposed charter amendment.

Teresa G. Walter, chairwoman of People for a County Police Department, says its members plan to blanket the county with pro-police department literature in the coming months to promote its side of the controversial issue.

More than a dozen of the group's members attended a County Council meeting Thursday night when the ballot language was decided.

Creation of a police department was first discussed in the county six years ago, then dropped.

Last summer, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann revived the idea when she proposed legislation that would have transferred responsibility for law enforcement, corrections and emergency communications from the Harford County Sheriff's Office to a new county police department.

Mrs. Rehrmann had been very critical of the sheriff, particularly after the suspicious death of a detention center inmate in 1992. A grand jury report this year concluded that the inmate died at his own hands either intentionally or accidentally.

The sheriff, Robert E. Comes, who is running for re-election, opposes the creation of a county police force.

Under Mrs. Rehrmann's plan, the police chief would be appointed by the county executive. The Sheriff's Office would remain an independent state commission, with an elected sheriff who would be responsible for courthouse security and serving court papers.

The County Council approved transferring communications to the county's Emergency Operations Center, but the law enforcement and jail issues failed to win its support. As a compromise, the council decided to send Mrs. Rehrmann's proposal to county voters in a referendum.

Thursday night, after hearing comments from some deputies, the council agreed to a slightly revised version of the ballot question: Voters will be asked to vote for or against transferring law enforcement authority to a new county police department.

The phrasing of proposed charter amendments is by law decided by the County Council.

"The only thing we ask is that the ballot language be fair," said John Miner, president of the deputies union and a member of People for a County Police Department.

Ms. Walter, a 14-year veteran deputy sheriff, said the majority of People for a County Police Department are unionized deputies. The union, which covers only law enforcement jobs, includes about 110 of the 290 deputies in the Sheriff's Office. It is an affiliate of the International Union of Police Associations.

The committee, she said, supports the ballot question for a number of reasons, most of which were put forth by the Rehrmann administration last year. Chief among them, Ms. Walter said, is accountability.

"The county now incurs liability for the deputies, but it doesn't have authority over them" or authority to review the sheriff's policies, she said.

Ms. Walter said deputies also feel they are under pressure at election time to support a particular candidate for sheriff, which is an elected office.

"Even if it is just perceived that you don't support a candidate, it can work against you. It might be very subtle, but it happens," she said.

A news release issued by People for a County Police Department cites Michael Marshall, a Baltimore lawyer who is counsel to the deputies union, as the committee's counsel. In the release, Mr. Marshall said a county police department would be "a more professional law enforcement agency equipped with the tools and technology essential to combat crime in this area."

Ms. Walter said the committee plans fund-raisers and door-to-door canvassing of neighborhoods to garner votes.

L The campaign kickoff begins 1 p.m. July 17 at 43 N. Bond St.

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