Sheriff as law enforcement officer: view from an expert

April 10, 2012

Section l. The Chancellor, Judges and Attorney General shall be conservators of the peace throughout the State; and the Sheriffs shall be conservators of the peace within the counties respectively in which they reside. – From the Delaware Constitution

That’s what Sussex Countians have been fighting about recently – the meaning of the phrase “conservators of the peace.” The state constitution doesn’t define it.

Sheriff Jeff Christopher and his supporters say it means he has full powers to arrest. The Attorney General’s Office and many officials say he doesn’t.

By my reading, the sheriff lacks a strong argument. Following his line of reasoning, the attorney general could come down from Wilmington and set up speed traps on Coastal Highway. After all, he’s a “conservator of the peace throughout the state.”

Not many would agree that’s what the writers of the constitution intended.

But the sheriff is duly mentioned in the state constitution and the county could expand the office’s powers if that were the best and most efficient way to fight crime.

But is it a good idea?

To explore that question, I talked to Greg Warren, a 22-year Delaware State Police veteran who retired as captain and as the agency’s director of training. He also served as troop commander, director of planning and has written numerous articles and books on police issues, including “Police Academy: Training for 21st Century Law Enforcement.” He is now an assistant professor at Wilmington University.

In addition, Warren has longtime ties to Sussex County. His father Ralph Warren was born in Rehoboth, and his family farmed Sussex County soil as far back as the 1740s.

He knows law enforcement and he knows the county.

Warren said county sheriffs do sometimes wield significant law enforcement powers, but typically in only two circumstances.

The first is where the sheriff’s office has grown and evolved, over many years, from its traditional role in law enforcement.

The second is where there has been some major need or event that has made an expansion necessary.

“We don’t have either one of those in Sussex County,” Warren said.

Another factor is the number of municipal police departments. Kent County, Md., for example, has a very powerful sheriff, Warren said, but that county has only one municipal police department.

Sussex County, on the other hand, has close to 30 police departments.

These include town and city forces and agencies such as the University of Delaware and the Delaware River & Bay Authority.

All of these, Warren said, can act with full jurisdiction outside their borders once they have been contacted by the state police.

Another issue is cost. If the sheriff’s department has the power to arrest it will need holding cells and everything that goes with them: a police station, a modern communications system, support staff, etc. – all the infrastructure the state police already has in place.

There is no halfway. If the county allows the sheriff’s office to expand, it will have created a countywide police force, however small it may be at the start.

According to Warren, creating a countywide force from scratch “would be incredibly redundant” and would “cost a fortune.”

It would also be contrary to what’s happening elsewhere.

All across the country, Warren said, in places like Nevada, North Carolina and Indiana, “They’re merging departments. They’re not starting new departments.”

For an obvious reason: it saves taxpayer dollars.

And unless Sussex County were lucky enough to see a significant growth in the realty transfer tax, that would mean an increase in property taxes.

The county would also face jurisdictional issues.

Warren mentioned a case in Maryland where the sheriff’s office handled what seemed to be a straightforward homicide.

“On the third or fourth day they figured out the case was more complicated than they thought,” Warren said.

Realizing they didn’t have sufficient equipment or training, they called in the state police. But by then a lot of the evidence was gone.

If the county were to consider expanding the powers of the sheriff’s office, Warren suggested an independent feasibility study.

Not that he has much doubt about what the result would be. He said he would expect a consultant to conclude that “This is an absolute no-go. It’s not even questionable.”
If Sussex County needs to expand its law enforcement because of increased crime, it can do so far more cheaply within its present system.

One more point: The county sheriff and his deputies are treading on dangerous ground if they make arrests while their authority is in dispute.

The potential financial liability is “absolutely horrendous,” Warren said. Taxpayers, of course, would ultimately foot the bill.

CORRECTION: In a recent column, I misspelled the name of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Cragg. I apologize for the error.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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