Possibly capitalizing on months — if not years — of dispute surrounding the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office and its duties, Democrat Eric Swanson unseated eight-year Sheriff Robert Reed on Tuesday, winning more than 53 percent of the vote.
Reed has angered some throughout his terms as sheriff by pursuing full-service law enforcement duties for his office, which traditionally oversees the service of court papers and court security. As recently as last week, Reed said that County Council cannot tell him who he “can and can not arrest.”
Swanson, a former state police official and high school teacher who will be giving up a private investigator’s license to take the position, said he ran to restore a sense of cooperation between the office and County Council.
“I feel humbled by the whole experience,” said a “physically and mentally drained,” Swanson. “I really appreciate the people in Sussex County believing in me and my message. There’s a bunch of great people in this county.”
When reached by phone on Wednesday, Reed, who first took office in 1998, seemed shocked by the outcome.
“It wasn’t a good night,” said Reed. “I knew it was going to be a tough race. My opponent’s staff went out and worked hard for him. I just need to apologize to my supporters that we didn’t work hard enough.”
Unlike Reed, Swanson said he would not pursue full-service law enforcement duties for the Sheriff’s Office when he takes over as its head in January. Swanson said he is open to discussion, however, and, as a two-decade state police officer, is not against the idea.
“If the council wants that, I’m the man that can take them in that direction,” said Swanson, adding that he will ask for more deputies for courtroom security. “(But) nobody can make demands on them. You have to form a partnership and work with them. That’s what hasn’t been happening.”
Despite two rulings from then-Attorney General Jane Brady, Reed has contested for years that the Delaware Code and Delaware Constitution grant the office full-service law enforcement duties. Rep. Pete Schwartzkoph (D-14th) introduced two bills this summer to change wording in the Delaware Code in order to remove any confusion. The bills got stuck in committee.
Reed has continued to attempt to enroll his deputies into the Delaware State Police Academy so they could receive proper training for Delaware law enforcement. County Council, state officials and Sussex County police chiefs have disagreed with Reed about the duties of the office, though, calling the Sheriff’s Office strictly a civil unit meant to serve the courts.
The sheriff’s disputes with municipal officials surfaced publicly this summer when one of his deputies allegedly responded to a crime on the west side of the county. Georgetown Police Chief William Topping sent a letter on behalf of the Sussex County Chiefs Council earlier this year, censuring Reed.
“The Sussex County Chiefs Council has voted to censure the actions of the Sussex County Sheriff. The Chief’s Council feels that our respective jurisdictions do not require the assistance of the Sheriff’s office,” Topping’s June 13 letter reads. “He and his deputies are not trained as police offers and should not act as police officers.”
Reed quickly responded with a letter of his own, saying that specifically the last line of Topping’s letter puts him and his deputies in danger while they are transporting prisoners — one of the outlined duties of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Chief Topping’s reckless, slanderous and untruthful statements could possibly put these deputies in danger while performing their duties,” Reed’s response reads. It was read into the County Council record on June 23 “It is amazing how certain groups wish to diminish the office of an elected sheriff who is responsible to all citizens of Sussex County.”
Reed contended last week that part of that responsibility to the people of Sussex County includes taking “action” if a crime happens in their presence. Some, including Republican County Councilman Vance Phillips, even said before Tuesday’s election that a landslide victory for Reed would be a mandate to discuss a full-service county force.
The disputes surrounding the Sheriff’s Office will likely now come to a halt, though, because of Reed’s defeat, which might instead be seen as a mandate to end the full-service discussion.
“Some people call it bickering. I call it trying to express one another’s points,” Reed said about the recent disagreements. “It’s not the end of the world. There was a life before the sheriff and there will be a life after sheriff. It’s going to go in a different direction now.”