Sussex council, residents at odds over sheriff's role

Councilman Cole says expanded office is slippery slope
Sussex Sheriff Jeff Christopher's car is parked on The Circle as he attends a recent county council meeting. BY RON MACARTHUR
April 27, 2012

The debate over the authority of the Sussex County Sheriff's Office continued over the past two weeks in Sussex County Council chambers.

At the April 17 county council meeting, more than a dozen residents spent an hour speaking out against House Bill 290 and in support of Sussex Sheriff Jeff Christopher. Only one thanked council for its unanimous support of legislation that clearly outlines county sheriffs do not have arrest powers.

The controversial bill was stricken by its sponsor, Rep. Dan Short, R-Seaford, April 25 amid political controversy in Legislative Hall.

At the April 24 meeting, Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, responded to previous comments by the public. He chastised those who claimed to be conservative Republicans because an expanded Sheriff's Office would cost more money and increase the size of government. “For the life of me, I can't understand people who come up here and say they are conservative. Do they understand what they are proposing is for the county to expand the bureaucracy and eventually raise taxes?” he asked “Once the door opens, it never closes.”

During the April 24 public comment session, Eric Bodenweiser of Georgetown disagreed with Cole.

“That's a straw man's argument,” he said. “No one has ever asked to expand the Sheriff's Office. Our sheriff has all the deputies he wants. All he wants is training and certification, and a couple decent cars for his deputies. It's you guys who control the money.”

At the heart of the debate is how far the Sheriff’s Office authority would extend. Christopher said he does not want to expand to a county police force, but he said he wants arrest powers he says are outlined in the state constitution.

Cole said no one alive can recall the last time the Sussex sheriff had arrest powers.

“The Legislature took enforcement powers from the sheriff years ago, and nobody knows when,” he said, making it clear he did not speak for the rest of council. “There is no one living now who can tell you when. As far back as I can remember, the county sheriff has had no enforcement duties.”

Even if the sheriff had arrest powers, Cole said, there would be no effect on crime in Sussex. He said the sheriff has seven deputies who work during the day Monday through Friday. “There's an assumption out there that if sheriff's deputies are provided enforcement powers, something is going to happen. If people think with what we have today it would have any impact on crime, they must be dreaming,” he said. “To put enough people out there to have an effect would cost millions of dollars. In these economic times, it would be crazy to start something like this.”

Cole said he is convinced a county police force would not be far behind if the role of the Sheriff's Office was expanded. “There is a desire out there to expand the office, but somebody has to pay for it. The conservative Democrats and Republicans sitting on county council have said no to that effort to expand the bureaucracy with more people and more money,” he said.

“I understand how the slippery slope or creep starts. It starts by county government expanding an existing program, creating something new and creating more bureaucracy that ends up costing more,” he said.

Cole said more than a decade ago, council looked at the idea, as proposed by Sen. George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, of a county police force when development was beginning to increase. Instead, council voted to provide funds to Delaware State Police for additional troopers dedicated to Sussex County. The number has increased to 40 more troopers. Over the past four years, council allocated more than $6 million to fund more state troopers in the county and nearly $2 million to support municipal police departments.

“I would love to see some figures what it would cost this county government to get 40 deputies doing enforcement at the county level. It would not be anywhere near what we subsidize Delaware State Police,” he said.

During the April 17 meeting, supporters of the Sheriff's Office pointed to the arrest authority given to the Sheriff's Office as a conservator of the peace by the state constitution, even though the Attorney General's Office has offered an opinion to the contrary. “Legally, you are standing in quicksand in gross violation of the oath of office you took to uphold the constitution,” Wolfgang von Baumgart of Millsboro told council during the April 17 meeting. “Your effort to undermine the constitutional authority of the sheriff is an abomination, and the people must arise to take issue with this in this election.”

Von Baumgart said the attorney general's opinion does not take historical data available in the state's public archives into account. “The sheriff's job and his arrest powers are inseparable,” he said. Meyer Persow of Rehoboth Beach thanked council for its support of HB 290. He said in many other states, sheriffs are considered law enforcement officers with arrest powers, but not in Delaware. “All we want is for the sheriff to do the job he was elected to do – to carry out sheriff’s sales and serve protection orders and not go around thinking he's Wyatt Earp,” he said.

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