Sheriff's deputies in dispute with Baltimore County over wages, staffing, guns and vehicles

A group of Baltimore County sheriff’s deputies is suing Sheriff R. Jay Fisher and the county government, alleging they are owed tens of thousands of dollars in overtime.

The lawsuit filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court comes amid a wide-ranging dispute between the union that represents deputies and the county. Deputies have complained about staffing at the Towson courthouse and aging guns and vehicles. Union leaders say the county administration has brushed off their concerns about safety.

“We feel like the red-headed stepchild of public safety in Baltimore County,” said Deputy 1st Class Charles Kish, treasurer of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 25.

Union leaders met with members of the County Council, the sheriff and the county administration this spring in hopes of bringing attention to their complaints.

Among their concerns: Their guns are at least 17 years old, and the average department vehicle, used to transport inmates and serve court papers, has roughly 148,000 miles.

“Every one of these cars is a safety hazard,” said Deputy 1st Class Stephen White, the union president. “It’s not safe for the deputies; it’s not safe for the prisoners.”

Fisher, who is running for re-election this year, did not respond to requests for comment. He faces Al Roberts, a sergeant in his office and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in the Democratic primary June 26. Two candidates are running in the Republican primary: Brian J. Noon and Carl H. Magee Jr.

A spokeswoman for County Executive Don Mohler declined to comment.

“The administration hasn’t been served with the lawsuit; therefore we cannot comment on it or on these other matters,” spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.

The lawsuit, filed last month by the union’s attorney on behalf of six sergeants and a lieutenant, centers on what’s known as stand-by pay. Under the union contract with the county, deputy sheriffs and deputy sheriffs first class are entitled to the pay when they are required to be available to be called back into work. The provision does not apply to higher-ranking deputies.

The plaintiffs allege that Fisher has required the sergeants to assume stand-by duty and designated the lieutenant as a “night commander” — but has not paid them. It says the county owes them a total of more than $96,000 in overtime.

Previously, Kish said, sergeants were not required to work stand-by. But the county didn’t fully fund the office for stand-by pay, so the sheriff began requiring them to do so.

The FOP contract expires next June. Negotiations between the union and the county are expected to begin this fall.

The union won another wage dispute with the county, which began in 2012 when a deputy filed a grievance with the county over stand-by and call-back pay. The case eventually went to the state’s second highest court. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in the union’s favor in 2016.

The county auditor’s office reported in a recent analysis of the sheriff’s $5.4 million budget that the sheriff’s staffing is now at its lowest level. It’s authorized for 90 positions but has ten vacancies.

The circuit court has added three new judges and one magistrate in the past three years, but the number of deputies did not increase, analysts wrote in the report. And since 2015, the office lost 25 deputies to retirement or resignations but hired only 21.

“The Office advised that in the absence of additional positions, courtrooms (on many occasions) have been staffed with only one Deputy, which poses a potential security risk,” the auditor’s office reported. Analysts said the number of inmates in protective custody has risen, requiring extra transports for the deputies.

Recruitment and retention have been a struggle, analysts said. Many deputies have left for agencies that pay more, such as the county police department.

Chief Administrative Judge Kathleen Cox said she shares concerns about staffing. She pointed to a large number of retirements in recent years.

“The process of hiring new sheriffs has been slower than one would expect,” Cox said.

Cox said cases involving domestic matters — divorces, custody disputes and child support — are of particular concern to her because they can grow emotionally heated. In about 70 percent of these cases, she said, at least one party does not have a lawyer.

When someone is not represented by an attorney, she said, “it changes the behavior dynamics.”

“Having a sheriff in uniform present in the courtroom tends to keep it less contentious,” Cox said.

The auditor’s office also outlined problems with the agency’s guns. According to the sheriff’s office, they said, “the night sights are failing to illuminate during low-light conditions and the gun holsters … are no longer made.”

“The Office also advised that the Police Department changed from this same brand/model weapon two years ago due to age and failures of the weapon,” analysts wrote.

The sheriff’s office requested approval to replace its weapons, analysts said, but the county turned down the request.

The auditor’s office’s report noted several improvements to courthouse safety over the past year, including the installation of ballistic barriers at the courthouse entry and new security cameras in the building.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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