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Peace settles over the sheriff's department


THERE'S NO LONGER talk, or even a whisper, about the creation of a police force for Harford County. "Question A" on last November's ballot is no longer a question.

It's an occasional point of a joke between Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who personally pushed the issue last year in her effort to gain control over countywide law enforcement.

The ballot proposal to establish a police department under an appointed police chief, replacing most of the sheriff's office functions, was rejected by Harford voters, 32,339 to 28,505.

"We have a competent countywide police force here in the sheriff's department, I think people recognize that," said Sheriff Meadows, after a week that saw two of his deputies shot, a major drug sweep in Edgewood and the county's agreement to open the first sheriff station outside Bel Air.

Forgot the invitation

Referring to a recent forum of Baltimore metro police departments, which pointedly excluded Harford, Sheriff Meadows quipped, "I guess they forgot to send me an invitation." The 35-year-old sheriff said that he cooperates with other metro law enforcement agencies through a number of organizations, including the state police chiefs' association.

Even though the Harford sheriff is elected as a state official, his office still operates like a county police department. The sheriff may be independently elected, but he still depends on the county government for everything from paper clips to patrol cars to payroll for nearly 300 employees.

"You know where the money comes from so you have to work to convince the county people that your requests are justified," he observed. That, he contends, was a problem with past sheriffs, who were not successful in getting funds for growth while the county treasury had an ample surplus.

It's something that Sheriff Meadows is learning fast, as he talks of expanding the force, getting new office space, overseeing an addition to the jail, arguing for an early (cost-saving) purchase of police cruisers and forming a volunteer auxiliary deputy corps.

Since taking office last December, the first Republican to hold the job in a half-century, Sheriff Meadows has pushed for increased resources for the growing crime problem in Harford.

But it's partly a measure of his success in budget-lobbying that the administration this month discovered an extra half-million dollars in the budget to pay for a police station in Edgewood, the highest-crime area in the county.

He openly promoted the idea in the campaign; his predecessor agreed but was resigned to its financial impossibility.

Another quiet lobbying move with Mrs. Rehrmann paid off in needed space (in a Public Works garage) for evidence-processing of vehicles involved in crimes.

The sheriff's office will have added 23 people, some clerks and some patrol deputies, by the end of his first year in office. Part of that increase is from a class of graduating cadets taken in before his term, part from positions funded by new federal grants and part from a restructuring of personnel in the office.

One of the first things he did on taking office was to revamp the staff organization, aiming to put 20 more deputies on patrol and to compress management levels.

Another was to get a computer into his office to keep track of staff performance and budget, and to get a couple of typewriters for deputies to write up their reports.

Retirements of veteran upper-level officers gave Sheriff Meadows more latitude to make command changes. In a move that reflected the circumstances that led to his election over Robert E. Comes, the new sheriff swiftly replaced the warden and deputy warden at the county detention center, which is under his office.

Healing relations

By appointing a department head of the Rehrmann administration, John J. O'Neill, as warden, Sheriff Meadows also helped to heal relations between the sheriff's office and the county executive, and to shake up the veteran jail staff.

The origin of "Question A" was the suspicious death of an inmate in the detention center, and a $400,000 payment by the county to settle liability with his family. Mrs. Rehrmann seized on the issue to lobby for a police department and an appointed chief to take over county law enforcement.

If the county is liable for actions of the sheriff staff, she argued, it should have full control of those actions. Sheriff Comes accused the executive of settling, before the grand jury report on the death, for political purposes.

Public uproar over the incident and jail management helped to defeat Sheriff Comes for re-election, even as citizens voted against a county police department.

Breaking the cycle of sheriff's officers elected to the office, SherIff meadows promised a major shake-up and new approaches based on his eight years as an assistant state's attorney in Harford and a life-long county resident.

"The main thing for me has been the intensity of the job, it never stops," says the sheriff. There's no question about it.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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