County police coverage a difficult issue

Once again, the roles of the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office have dominated headlines around the area.

The proposed HB 290 would make the law perfectly clear in Delaware that county sheriffs and their deputies would not have arrest authority. Obviously, that is not unanimously loved, as members of the sheriff’s office and the public have voiced their displeasure wildly. Crime seems to be on the uptick in the county and state and people want to know why there are peace officers available who can do nothing to help with the problem.

And that, to us, seems like a perfectly reasonable question.

However, Councilman George Cole laid out some of his reasons to support HB 290 at Tuesday’s regular council meeting, and his rationale made a lot of sense. Cole said that the idea of having a county police force came up about 10 years ago, but the council eventually contracted with the state police to have 40 more officers on county roads at a cost of $1.8 million.

Cole pointed out that there are currently seven people in the office of the sheriff, and they basically work the standard 9-5 shift. He added that if anybody thinks “there’s a potential in using what we have today (as opposed to 24-7 coverage with troopers), obviously, they must be dreaming.”

He compared it to the county paramedics, saying that the county had to hire 100 paramedics just so 16 can be on call 24-7. He said that building up the sheriff’s office would be too costly, and taxes would most likely have to be raised to fund it. “Historically, the county has said no to raising taxes,” explained Cole.

When Cole clarified his position, saying he was speaking for himself only, and not the rest of the council, Councilman Vance Phillips chimed in and said, “on this issue, he is speaking for Mr. Phillips, too.” Later, Councilwoman Joan Deaver simply said, “I’m with George.”

Other speakers in attendance at the meeting made strong points for expanding the sheriff’s duties, including Eric Bodenweiser, who said that the county is not getting the amount of security contracted through the state police because that department is “unable to provide the level of security needed.”

This is a tough subject, because arguments on both sides hold considerable merit. Sussex County is filled with unincorporated areas that do not have a municipal police department patrolling their streets. On the other hand, the costs for building a countywide police force that could patrol 24-7 is prohibitive. Just look at Ocean View as they scramble to provide their typical police coverage after losing a few officers.

We’ve also seen towns like Millville, which do not have their own departments, lock down deals with the state police to provide coverage to their towns. Perhaps the best way to proceed is to get officials from these towns together with county council members and leaders from the state police to find a way to best utilize the resources that are available and trained, as opposed to starting over with a whole new department.