Sheriff seeks police powers Pa. Sheriff's group wants authority to make arrests
BY BRETT HAMBRIGHT, Staff Writer
There's enough crime to "go around," according to Lancaster County Sheriff Mark Reese.
So, Reese asks, why not have more qualified professionals fighting it?
Reese, along with sheriff departments across the state, are hoping to secure more power and authorization to arrest when confronted with criminal activity.
As it stands, Reese explained, local deputy sheriffs are permitted to charge only in minor crimes, mostly traffic violations, that they witness first-hand.
Those cases are limited. Reese said his crew is willing -- and able -- to do much more.
"There are things we come across, but since our hands are tied, we can't act on it," Reese said this week. "It doesn't seem right that we have to call police to respond and do the charges -- when we can do that."
The Pennsylvania Sheriffs' Association is drafting potential legislation to be submitted to lawmakers that would essentially give sheriffs more police-like authority.
The Sheriffs Association is in ongoing talks with groups, including state associations for police, county commissioners and district attorneys, who question the proposed changes.
Reese said a deputy sheriff's training -- 760 hours over 19 weeks -- is very similar to a police officer's curriculum at the academy.
"We're like an extension of the police department," Reese said. "And there's enough work to go around. We are very capable of doing these things."
Local skeptics, however, are leery of sheriff deputies crossing into police territory.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said he has "serious concerns" over the potential change in procedure.
"I'm not as concerned about who handles a case as long as they are handled properly and as effectively as possible," he said, noting the increased power would translate to a lot more work for the sheriff's office.
"As a practical matter, our sheriffs are resource-challenged, and filing charges on even a simple case certainly consumes resources," Stedman said, "so I don't see how this would be possible here."
Reese claims it would be business as usual if his 60 deputies were granted increased authority.
Deputies already encounter criminal activity every day while serving warrants, protection-from-abuse orders and other court orders. This would merely enable deputies to do something about it, Reese said.
"We don't look for (specific crime), but when we come across it, let us handle things," Reese said, using PFA violations and DUI and drug crimes as examples. "We know (police) get stretched thin, so use us."
East Cocalico police Chief George Beever said his officers can handle their current workload.
"That's what we're here for," Beever said. "I appreciate what the sheriffs do, and I can see where they're coming from. (But) they work more on the civil side; we are more on the criminal side."
Beever, president of the county's Police Chiefs' Association, said that separation is necessary.
"We don't try to do their jobs," he said.
Reese said he isn't trying to step on toes and won't give his deputies more than they can handle.
"We're not trying to take over," he said.
And he's not lobbying for a unified county police department with the sheriff in charge, as is the scenario in some states.
"We're just not," Reese said adamantly.
Ephrata police Chief William Harvey said he has no problem with increased duties, as long as deputies are qualified.
"Recall I come from the South, where they are the controlling law-enforcement agency," he said, referring to his 22 years with the police department in Savannah, Ga.
West Hempfield police Chief Mark Pugliese said the increased duties, if approved, must be preceded by proper training.
"This would be a whole different field for them," he said, pointing out that sheriff and police academy training are different. "They're basically going to have to be trained completely as police officers."
Beyond that, Pugliese said, on-street training is crucial. He said new police officers typically ride along with veteran officers and have regular, sometimes daily, evaluations during their first year.
Deputies would need that on-street experience, said Pugliese, past president of the county Chiefs' Association.
"The training is invaluable," he said. "You just can't substitute experience with books."
Reese concedes that.
"We probably don't have that overall experience," he said. "But we're no different from new police officers coming out of the academy."
Scott Martin, Lancaster County commissioners chairman, said he'd prefer a unified county force or another option that also would cut costs for public safety. As it stands, he said, taxpayers are dishing out for multiple public-safety agencies to cover the same ground.
"It's not like that everywhere else," Martin said.
Some states have county-wide forces or designate state police to cover only highway incidents, Martin noted as examples.
"We are so long overdue to have a big-picture discussion about law enforcement," he said. "There's duplication and overlap here."
Increasing sheriff duties wouldn't change that, he said.
"That would just be another level of overlap."
Any approval on increased authority must come from Harrisburg. There is no timetable on when the Sheriffs Association will submit its proposal to lawmakers.
If changes are implemented, the deputies deserve pay raises, according to a local union representative.
"If there are added duties, there should be added pay," said Chuck Clark, representative for Laborers' Union of North America Local 1310.
The union would get involved only after lawmakers act on the proposal, Clark said. That involvement, Clark said, would include making sure the deputies have the proper equipment and pay and their duties are specified.
Stedman and some others proposed giving the sheriff additional duties similar to a constable, instead of a police officer. That work would include transporting prisoners and criminal defendants and providing security.
"Before looking at criminal prosecutions, a more natural area for the sheriffs to look at expanding might well be in the area of transport, security and constable services," the district attorney said.