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Harford Sheriff works to fill 'holes' in schedule as heroin deaths increase

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is facing a manpower shortage at a time when deputies are sorely needed to handle a heroin crisis that gets worse every year, according to Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.

While the county's principal law enforcement agency is getting a boost in funding to provide raises for its sworn officers, the Sheriff's Office has "25 holes in our schedule that we're carrying," Gahler said during a recent work session with the County Council on his agency's proposed $76.5 million budget for fiscal 2018.

"Any time we have a vacancy, it's a [risk] to the citizens in not having a deputy out there on the street," Gahler said.

The 25 "holes" the sheriff referred to includes 10 vacant positions among law enforcement deputies and 15 graduates of the Sheriff's Office police academy who, following their late April graduation, must go through weeks of field training before they can hit the road on their own.

The Sheriff's Office has 543 employees, including law enforcement, corrections and civilian staffers. The agency is also short 11 corrections deputies, according to Gahler.

At the same time, 29 people in Harford County have died so far this year from heroin overdoses, one more than the number of people who overdosed and died in all of 2015.

Fifty-four people died because of heroin overdoses in 2016. The number of overdoses, fatal and non-fatal, is increasing statewide, and law enforcement officials blame fentanyl, a powerful painkiller mixed into heroin.

Health and law enforcement officials across Maryland have been on alert for carfentanil, a tranquilizer so powerful, it is used on large animals such as elephants and cannot be handled by humans unless they are wearing protective gear on their hands, eyes and mouths, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The Baltimore Sun reported in April that three people in Maryland — two in Anne Arundel County and one in Frederick County — had died after overdosing on carfentanil.

Gahler told council members that his investigators are watching for the drug to show up in Harford County, warning them "carfentanil is coming" and that "it's going to kill a lot more people."

"We know where this is going to lead us, to even higher numbers on our boards," Gahler said.

The total number of overdoses and number of fatals is displayed on boards in front of the Sheriff's Office headquarters in downtown Bel Air, its southern and northern precincts in Edgewood and Jarrettsville, the Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack and the Aberdeen Police Department.

The tallies are updated weekly.

"I think that takes a lot of guts to get it out there and to not hide this epidemic we're dealing with locally," Councilman Chad Shrodes said. "Any way to increase awareness and talk among families is a good thing."

The Sheriff's Office must take on this scourge even without its full complement of law enforcement officers.

Gahler told council members earlier this year that it is becoming more difficult to recruit and retain deputies. Salaries that lag behind those of neighboring jurisdictions are a major factor, he said.

He has, however, beem getting some help on the salary issue, both in the current budget and the budget for next year being reviewed by the County Council.

Salary step increases for Sheriff's Office employees had not been funded for nearly a decade. County Executive Barry Glassman, who was elected in 2014, put money in this year's budget for 3 percent merit-based salary increases for county employees and deputies, plus an additional 3 percent for deputies first class and senior deputies and 6 percent for corporals.

The sheriff and leaders of the deputies' union have expressed their appreciation for the increases, but noted it causes "compression issues" by narrowing the difference in salary between the ranks that got raises and higher ranking officers, meaning there is less of an incentive to seek a promotion.

The Sheriff's Office commissioned a salary study in 2016, which recommended funding funding salary step increases to make agency employees' pay competitive.

The sheriff requested that Glassman commit to funding a "reduced market-rate" plan recommended by the study over two years, but the county executive has said he can only commit to one year at a time.

The proposed $76.5 million budget for next year comes with a net increase of nearly $2 million more than the $74.5 million Sheriff's Office budget approved for this year.

Glassman is committing $2.2 million for the first year of salary increases for deputies, along with $317,344 to cover a 4 percent merit salary increase for civilian employees — he is funding 4 percent salary increases for all eligible county employees, his third annual employee salary increase.

Gahler told council members he expects "all the compression issues to some degree will be nearly fully addressed."

"It is a very fair and equitable plan for the men and women of the sheriff's office in their sworn roles and capacities," he said.

The county executive is also putting more funding toward overtime and shift differential — there is a $221,256 increase budgeted, from $4.92 million this year to $5.14 million next year — which is "based on actual expense history and due to amount of overdose-related investigations."

Gahler noted drug task force investigators, who respond to all overdose calls to talk with the victim and gain information about how they got the drugs, have been responding to the same victim up to five times in some cases.

He said many victims have been "very cooperative" with investigators, but he is considering seeking legislative changes at the state level that would allow for the arrest of repeat offenders.

"They're heading one way, they're going to die," Gahler said. "They're not going to get the help themselves."

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