These are the real stakes in Battle of the Browns


THE POLITICAL gamesmanship between Carroll County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown and Sheriff John H. Brown (no relation) over the sheriff's drug "strike force" continues unabated. The sheriff announced his four-man squad of sleuths had made its first arrest, collaring an unnamed person suspected of carrying a quarter-ounce of marijuana. Commissioner Brown's reaction was another riposte at the sheriff: "I wish he would wise up and assist the state police."

This battle is likely to continue until the 1998 elections. Sheriff Brown is determined to continue his drug enforcement effort. Commissioner Brown is equally adamant in his belief that the sheriff's drug investigations are diverting personnel away from the office's primary tasks (see letter at right).

Looking beyond the dispute between these two politicians, the lTC fight is about more than Sheriff Brown's efforts to collar Carroll's drug dealers. It is really over who should police the county.

Under the current system, there is an uneasy mix of state and municipal police and sheriff's deputies maintaining order and apprehending criminals.

State police and the resident troopers serve as the county's primary police force. They patrol the roads, respond to calls and investigate major crimes. Westminster, Sykesville, Hampstead, Taneytown and Manchester have their own police departments that handle patrol duties in their jurisdictions.

Over the years, the role of the sheriff's office has been ambiguous. Deputies are sworn personnel who carry weapons and have arrest powers.

Articles of faith

Yet it is almost an article of faith among the county's politicians and leaders that the sheriff should not get involved in police activities. He should stick to providing security for the courthouse, running the detention center and serving court papers. The other article of faith is that Carroll should not have its own police force. While the county pays for the state troopers, it does not have the burden of maintaining a large police department infrastructure, including a headquarters, a crime lab, records section and a fleet of cruisers. This overlapping system of police departments has functioned in an acceptable fashion when it came to solving crimes, investigating traffic accidents and providing police patrols. However, the county could not have different police agencies working independent undercover drug enforcement operations because they might end up operating at cross purposes.

The county tried to get around this problem by creating the Narcotics Task Force. Unfortunately, this experiment in cooperative law enforcement failed because the men in charge emphasized seizing property over stopping drug traffickers.

We will all have to wait to see if Carroll's diffused drug enforcement effort will succeed.

The prospects are not promising. From a standpoint of efficiency and effectiveness, it doesn't make much sense for the sheriff to be off free-lancing or for town police departments to carry on investigations that duplicate state police efforts.

A county police force?

During the election campaign a year ago, Commissioner Brown, then the mayor of Westminster, suggested that the county begin making preparations for the gradual formation of a county police force.

Rather than try to convert the sheriff's department into a police force or allow state troopers to form the core of a new police force, Commissioner Brown wanted the municipal police departments to expand their jurisdiction to adjacent sections of the county. Over time, these town police forces would be folded into one police organization.

By having his drug-fighting squad, Sheriff Brown can build the case that his department is capable of police work. Drug cases are a great source of publicity. Every time his deputies arrest someone, it is mentioned in the press. The sheriff's department gets little credit for serving papers, keeping order in the courthouse or guarding Carroll's jail inmates. But the question is not which policing policy is politically advantageous for Sheriff Brown or Commissioner Brown. The appropriate question is: What is best for the residents of the county?

Carroll has not been a hotbed of criminal activity. Most residents can conduct their daily affairs without fear of bodily harm. Crimes against people -- murders, rapes, armed robberies and assaults -- are less frequent than in adjacent counties. Most of the county's criminal activity is against property -- burglaries, car thefts, acts of vandalism.

At some point in the future, however, this jury-rigged police system will not provide the same degree of security and comfort that Carroll's residents currently enjoy. When this will happen is anyone's guess, but Carroll's residents eventually will demand more protection through a county police force.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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