When the Harford sheriff's office opened the Interagency Processing Center, or central booking facility, in 1992, it was seen as a symbol of efficiency and cooperation among a half-dozen law enforcement agencies in the county.
The National Association of Counties recognized Sheriff Robert Comes for implementing the project, which he claimed saved over $100,000 in police workhours in the first year alone. Officers could get back on the road faster instead of wasting long hours in processing arrestees, he noted.
But in January, the Maryland State Police said they were pulling out of the arrangement. The reason: It would cost them too much in manpower assigned to the center in Bel Air. Their share of staffing duties was to rise from one shift per week to six shifts per week, based on the number of arrestees they processed there in 1994.
So they'll do the booking themselves, with troopers waiting their turn for a court commissioner or judge to set bail on suspects instead of handing the prisoners over to the Main Street center.
The increased assignment duty was set by new Harford Sheriff Joseph Meadows, who naturally wants to get more of his deputies out of the office and on patrol. He also upped the booking center shift obligations of the three municipal police forces, who have gone along with it.
The problem is that this cooperative venture may not save officer time for each agency. Especially if the center duty is a fixed obligation, and the arrest-booking time for suspects can vary widely.
A partial solution, and one Mr. Meadows has endorsed, is to turn more of these processing duties over to clerks. He'll be asking for more money to create these clerical jobs in the new fiscal-year budget that begins in July.
During the election campaign for sheriff last year, Dale Zepp criticized the administration for failing to replace armed deputies with clerks in the Main Street center. That move alone could free eight deputies at the center for work policing the community, according to Major Zepp, a retired 30-year veteran of the county sheriff's force.
Some armed deputies will always be needed for prisoner custody, although corrections officers may handle that duty when the center is moved to the planned county jail addition in two years.
For now, the replacement of road-patrol officers with clerks at the center should be an urgent priority for the sheriff, to increase overall policing presence throughout Harford County.