Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007

Officials support decision on police

Gouge, Minnich say a public hearing was not necessary; in hindsight, Zimmer wished one was held

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Carroll County commissioners may have unanimously decided in October to create a county police force, but each provided a different reason Tuesday for doing so.

Commissioners voted 3-0 on Oct. 4 to create a police force, headed by a chief they would appoint, to take over daily policing responsibilities of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Maryland State Police.

Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning has criticized the vote, and said his office should be the primary law-enforcement agency in Carroll County.

A task force of Carroll government staff members provided three scenarios: continue using Maryland State Police to supplement the Sheriff’s Office; expand the Sheriff's Office; or create a county police force.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich (R) of Westminster said he believes “people with policing authority should be accountable to a body or council outside law enforcement.“

He added that an elected sheriff could be beholden to voters. “I didn't have that problem with Sheriff Tregoning, but I've seen sheriffs come and go,“ he said.

One criticism of an appointed police chief is that the chief could be beholden to the people who appoint him, who are elected.

However, Minnich said that problem is mitigated by the fact that there are three commissioners. “It takes two commissioners to make a change,“ he said.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge (R) of Hampstead said she believes commissioners should have more of a say in law enforcement.

“We have no say,“ Gouge said. “They work with us. We are not the boss. We pay the bills, but we have no control over what they do.“

“Many counties have told us that when there is an elected officer, they don't have as much control to direct things or the budget.“

Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer (R) of Eldersburg found the decision tough, but said he is comfortable with the outcome.

“The Sheriff's Office-county police force was not an easy call,“ Zimmer said. “I support coordination between the funding authority and managing the delivery of police services.“

The county spent $5.2 million this year for 45 resident troopers and an administrative assistant. The budget for the Sheriff's Office for the this year is $4.8 million, which pays for 71 sworn officers and 29 civilians.

Minnich said his understanding of conversations with Tregoning was that they both understood that the Sheriff's Office would grow over the past several years so that a trained core of officers could be used to start the county force.

“I thought Sheriff Tregoning was on board, if he wasn't he never corrected me,“ Minnich said. “We just had a failure to communicate.“

“We spent a lot of money to gain accreditation,“ Minnich said. “I wouldn't have if there wasn't going to be a county police force.“

Minnich added that they are trying to find out whether that accreditation would follow any officers who would choose to be come part of a county force.

Tregoning said Wednesday that he agreed that the resident trooper program should be phased out; however, he recalled discussing if a police force was necessary “in the future, not the near future — should any board decide — there should be justification to do that and the issue should be decided by the people, not a board.“

At a minimum, Tregoning said the decision should wait until 2010, when the board is expected to have five commissioners, four of whom would be elected by district and one at-large.

“At least hold off the decision, until there's equal representation,“ Tregoning said.

Gouge and Zimmer agreed that the idea is to recruit from within the sheriff's department's ranks.

“Over the years, we put more money in the budget to add more deputies,“ Gouge said.

That's one of the reasons Minnich said he thinks now is the time to start a force.

“Maybe this is not the time, but we've got that core group now,“ Minnich said, adding that things could change in the future and those people may no longer be available.

“The quality is there,“ he said. “It's time for this sheriff's department to take on the badge of a police force.“

“I think the average citizen won't notice the change,“ Minnich said. “We're just adding another uniform to the mix.“

As to why a public hearing was not held on the matter, Minnich said “we're elected representatives; we're elected to make these kinds of decisions. On something like this, I didn't think a public hearing was necessary.

“Eighty percent of the population, they don't give a hoot, and they just want someone to make a decision. We're certainly qualified. We're certainly justified.“

Gouge agreed. “First of all, it's under the decision of the realm of what commissioners are able to do. We've heard for years we need to do this. Unless people are very well-informed, they don’t' have all the facts and statistics. We're very well-informed.“

“I don't know that it would have hurt or helped, but the decision was made,“ Gouge said.

Zimmer disagreed on the matter of public hearing. “We probably should have. I think that was a mistake on our part. Sometimes you feel so comfortable with your decision that you don't think of that.“

“The fact that we didn't opens us to this criticism, and it's a fair criticism.“

Minnich also said he thought a county force would address the issue of first response in the county, since 911 calls go through Maryland State Police.

Gouge also added that she thought an appointed chief would provide continuity in law enforcement. “With an appointed police chief, there's consistency,“ she said. “With an elected sheriff, are they going to stay in office?“

The fact that the chief would be appointed by elected officials whose political future is also determined by voters did not concern Gouge.

“Provided he's doing a good job overall,“ Gouge said she believed his job would be secure.

Gouge, Minnich and Zimmer see the Sheriff's Office as returning to its constitutional duties under Maryland law, which includes court house security, serving summons and transporting prisoners, and the detention center.

“[The Sheriff's Office] would be very much downsized,“ Gouge said. “We'll no longer need road deputies.“

Tregoning said Wednesday, however, that he plans to continue doing business as usual. “It's a shame to have officers who are trained and not to have them use their full policing powers,“ he said. “I would continue to be a full law enforcement agency.“

The next step toward a county police force includes creating a task force that would include Maryland State Police and the Sheriff's Office, said Steven Powell, county chief of staff.

Powell said he is in the process of collecting data for the task force and expects it to be formed some time in January.