Lancaster County Courthouse

The Lancaster County Courthouse at 50 North Duke Street houses the county sheriff's office, which is experiencing high turnover and staffing shortages.

THE ISSUE

As LNP’s Carter Walker reported Wednesday, employees in the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office say the office is plagued by tension and low morale stemming from poor management that is leading to staff turnover and shortages. This understaffing, Walker reported, is “leading to problems for the court system. An analysis of staffing trends by LNP revealed that more than two dozen employees have left the office since 2018, and turnover this year is 42% higher than the county average.”

Understaffing of the county sheriff’s office is not a minor issue.

When there aren’t enough deputies to provide security, courtroom openings may be delayed — or courtrooms may be closed. This leads the court schedule to be backed up, Court Administrator Mark Dalton told LNP.

And slowing the pace of criminal cases means drawn-out processes and more costs to taxpayers.

Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth confirmed to LNP that staffing problems in the sheriff’s office have a trickle-down effect. “We need to be able to run an efficient court system,” Ashworth said.

He said it is not good that judges now must guess which hearings they can afford to hold without a deputy present.

We completely agree: That is a kind of courtroom roulette that makes us shudder. This is not an era — and a courtroom is not a place — in which safety can be compromised.

Unfortunately, as Walker pointed out, there is no simple fix, and the root problems are murky and contested.

Sheriff Chris Leppler, the office’s elected official, has one theory: He told LNP that it’s tough to keep a full staff when the job offers relatively low pay and the strong economy offers better opportunities. He also said his efforts to change the office’s culture to a more “paramilitary” mindset — aimed at instilling more discipline and structure — might be causing friction.

Current and former employees — only one of whom agreed to be named because of the fear of employment retaliation — have another theory: They say Leppler and Chief Deputy Sheriff Chris Riggs are to blame.


Too few job-seekers

In the first 588 days of Leppler’s term, Walker reported, departures more than doubled when compared to the same period under Sheriff Mark Reese, who resigned in July 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations.

“Retention is also down,” Walker reported. “Currently, there are 10 full-time and five part-time deputy positions open, in addition to two open administrative and three clerical positions.”

Walker noted that recruitment and retention problems “are not unique to Lancaster County. Law enforcement entities across the state and nation face similar issues.”

“The Lancaster County Prison is also down about a dozen correctional officers, and the courtroom bailiffs have seven open positions.”

Charlette Stout, the county’s human resources director, said recently that Lancaster County is “considered to be at full employment, so there’s more job openings than there are people to fill those jobs.”


Question of morale

Two former staffers interviewed by Walker refuted the notion that pay was the primary reason for the high staff turnover; both said they took pay cuts when they departed for other jobs.

Another former employee, Wendell Reed, who worked part time as deputy with the office from May 2018 to May 2019, said he heard complaints about how job assignments, discipline and promotions were handled, and morale was low. “It wasn’t just one or two rabble-rousers; it was more of a consensus,” Reed told LNP.

Current and former employees pointed to Chief Deputy Riggs’ leadership in particular — his perceived favoritism, his alleged short-temperedness — as a primary source of the office turmoil.

Leppler countered that Riggs handles many of the day-to-day operations and the push for a “cultural change” was causing the chief deputy sheriff to bear the brunt of the employee pushback.

We’re not going to profess we know the truth of this situation, though we’d urge Leppler and county human resources officials to seriously consider employee complaints and to make it clear that frankness will not be punished with retaliation.

We did find this incident reported by Walker shocking: Earlier this summer, Chief Deputy Riggs was overheard saying that his Fourth of July plans would include buying beer, writing deputies’ names on the beers and using them for target practice.

That is so completely unacceptable it’s nearly unbelievable. But it was confirmed to Walker by three employees, who were interviewed separately.

We hope Riggs was disciplined for this breach of professional conduct that bordered on threatening behavior. “Jokes” that include guns and employees’ names are not funny at all. They’re deeply worrying.


Situation not critical?

Sheriff Leppler told Walker that while retention and recruitment need to be addressed, he doesn’t view the situation as critical. He said there were fewer total deputies when he took office in 2018. “If I felt that it was critical and I had to pull staff from other offices, I would do that,” Leppler said.

In light of the disruptions to the court, he might want to consider doing just that.

Thomas Maioli, executive director of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs’ Association, confirmed to Walker that law enforcement at the municipal, county and state levels is also wanting for personnel. But he cautioned that this cannot mean employers ease what he described as the “very stringent steps” that sheriffs must go through to be hired.

Indeed. Protecting court personnel and the general public in county courtrooms is a weighty and essential task, and it requires skill and professionalism.

We’d urge Lancaster County to look to counties that have had more success in recruiting and retaining staff. What strategies are they employing that ours is not but could?

Leppler insists that more competitive pay would help, and we agree. He also said, “I don’t know that there’s any one answer,” and that also seems evident.

He should consider all of the possible answers. Even if some of them lead to painful solutions.

The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office endured enough turbulence during former Sheriff Reese’s tenure. It needs to be righted — and soon.