County police debate to continue

Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed recently said it’s not something he is “worried about right now.” And Eric Swanson, a former State Police official and Reed’s Democratic challenger in this year’s election, said that it will be left up to the discretion of County Council.

Although the pair seemed to brush off the idea of forming a Sussex County police force, the topic has been discussed on the radio, in local newspapers and likely in personal conversations for months, or longer. Since the sheriff was formally censured by local police chiefs earlier this year for apparently pursuing law enforcement duties for his office and his deputies, the topic has been a regular source of debate.

“All I want to do is get my deputies through the academy and get them trained,” Reed said recently. “I could not on my own start a county-wide police department. The funding has to come from county council.”

That amount of funding necessary to start such a force has also been debated. Some have argued that the cost necessary would rival that of the New Castle County police force, which employs 364 officers. Ed Milowicki, a budget analyst for the northern county, said that New Castle pays about $110,000 to put an officer in the field and county officials budgeted $48 million just for those officers in the most recent fiscal plan.

Republican County Councilman George Cole — who represents the Bethany Beach area on the five-man council — said that he wouldn’t support such a county police force because of the cost involved.

Democratic Council President Lynn Rogers cited a figure of more than $50 million for a county police force, saying that “everybody better get their checks out. This is not something that you want to get into. If you create a county police force, everybody would be after the same money. It just is not a good direction.”

But, despite comparisons to New Castle’s situation, the cost would not necessarily be so drastic — especially in a county where small towns such as Fenwick Island and South Bethany have their own police forces.

In Worcester County, the sheriff’s office employs 20 part-timers and 42 sworn officers and budgeted about $3.4 million for its officers, supplies and animal control in the 2006 fiscal year, according to that county’s budget office. Part-timers and the civil division in the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office handle transportation and duties at the courts, according to Chief Deputy Reggie Mason. Some seven detectives and 22 road patrol officers work in the office’s criminal division, as do three K-9 officers, a bomb dog, a narcotics team and a SWAT team, he added.

“We not only handle road and criminal control,” Mason said. “We do everything the State Police does.”

And those two forces in Maryland have a good, working relationship.

“We help each other out,” said Lt. Douglas Dods, head of the Berlin barracks of the Maryland State Police. “Sheriff Martin has been able to get his patrol side up to where he’s 50 percent of the patrol force in the county.”

Though it is common in other states and might seem an obvious answer to complaints about the lack of state police patrols in rural Sussex, most Sussex County leaders don’t support such a relationship. They instead stand behind a deal to subsidize the State Police that has been in place in the county since the mid-1990s.

Each year, Sussex County budgets monies to maintain four state police officers on the State Police’s force in the southernmost Delaware county. According to county Public Information Officer Chip Guy, Sussex budgeted $697,000 in the 2003 fiscal year, $843,000 in 2004, just more than $1 million in 2005 and $1.2 million in 2006.

Some 172 troopers are currently assigned to Sussex, according to Randall Hughes, the State Police field operations officer for Kent and Sussex counties. State Police officials displayed confidence in that force but wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a county department, acknowledging that as a county council decision.

“We feel the residents are aware of the many benefits the state police have been providing for decades,” State Police Deputy Superintendent Lt. Col. Mark W. Seifert said in a statement read by Public Information Officer Cpl. Jeff Oldham. “The Delaware State Police is very fortunate to have enjoyed an excellent partnership with Sussex County government and all the municipal police departments in Sussex County.”

Unlike State Police officials, Democratic and Republican county leaders have clearly vocalized their opposition to a county department. That may shatter the hope some had for its formation but, undoubtedly, will not end the debate. Indeed, the debate may only increase as those used to the idea of a county police force continue to relocate to Sussex County. But county officials stand strong on the issue.

“The present program we have, where we have additional troopers in Sussex County, is the most efficient, most-cost productive way of providing additional security,” Cole said. “I like that.”

“There’s no support on council now for county police,” Rogers said. “It would be a fiscal nightmare. We don’t need it. We need to just enhance through the state.”