Now that Howard County's elected sheriff, James Fitzgerald, has finally announced his resignation, there are some important questions facing our community. The sheriff's behavior, which included racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments as well as favoritism and intimidation of those who disagreed with him, raises important moral and ethical questions. How was this man allowed to get away with behavior which would have led to his termination in just about any other job? That line of questioning will lead, I hope, not only to some honest conversation about racial bias in our county, but also to some organizational and structural questions.
Why do we have a sheriff? And why is it an elected position?
Our recent experience with Fitzgerald begs both of these questions. The office of sheriff seems like an artifact from the rural days of Howard County when there weren't municipal police departments. Every news story about Fitzgerald over the past two weeks includes a line like this one from yesterday's story in the Baltimore Sun, reassuring the reader that the sheriff does very little:
The Howard County sheriff's office provides courthouse security, serves warrants, transports prisoners and addresses landlord-tenant disputes. It is not the county's primary law enforcement agency.
The Washington Post says the sheriff's office "acts primarily as an arm of the court system, transporting prisoners and issuing summons." Aren't these jobs that could be done by the Howard County Police Department? "Courthouse security" could certainly be handled by a private security company. Wouldn't that save the county money and simplify the organizational structure of law enforcement?
Organizational structure brings us to the issue of accountability. The people who support elected sheriffs always trumpet the importance of having a law enforcement official who is "directly accountable" to the people of the community. Fitzgerald has proved this argument incorrect. Clearly, he had no sense of accountability to the people of the county. Those people have been demanding his resignation for weeks. Over 500 signed an on-line petition. There have been several demonstrations and many calls, emails and blog posts. Fitzgerald's only response was to say that he was "humbled". This man seemed to see the sheriff's office as his own private kingdom. His power was absolute and no one could challenge him, inside or outside of his office.
So who got Fitzgerald to resign? Elected officials, notably County Councilman Calvin Ball. Governor Hogan issued a statement condemning Fitzgerald minutes before he resigned--presumably that statement was made privately before it was made in public. So if the real structure of accountability for the sheriff's office is the County Council, why not change the County charter to make sheriff an appointed position? The governor will be appointing a new sheriff to serve out the remaining two years of Fitzgerald's term. I will be interesting to watch what happens. Maybe accountability--and transparency--will actually improve.
I am hardly an expert in the area of law enforcement agencies, but it took only a couple of Google searches to realize that Howard County is not the only place where sheriffs are controversial and combative figures. Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona is the most notorious example. Milwaukee County's Sheriff David Clarke has made a name for himself through frequent Twitter tirades. But there are lots of smaller stories. Check out this story from Portsmouth, Virginia where the sheriff has pursued a vendetta against the mayor all year. Or listen to what Maryland's Wicomico County sheriff, Mike Lewis, had to say about the shooting death of police officers in Dallas this past July.
When there are so many examples of office holders who use their position to spout off, antagonizing large portions of the community they were elected to serve, or to harass citizens or political rivals, the issue is not just the person--it is the position. Law enforcement officers need clear structures that guarantee accountability and responsibility. Howard County's experience adds to the evidence that law enforcement agencies work best when, like police departments, they are accountable to some people in particular, not just to "the people" in general.