Vacancies squeeze county Sheriff's Department
Jan. 21, 2000

The Bowie Star: Community News

by Eyobong Ita

Staff Writer

January 20, 2000

The Prince George's County Sheriff's Department has not hired deputies and civilian personnel since Dec. 12, 1994, leaving the agency with inadequate manpower created by 92 vacant positions, The Bowie Star has learned.

Due to a lack of funds to replace former personnel, sheriff deputies in the department have for years been subjected to heavy workloads and mandatory overtime, prompting many to quit and take up jobs in other counties, according to information obtained from agency records.

Sixty-six sheriff deputies have quit within the last six years, including three who left in the first week of this month -- Byron Simms, Mark Roccaporiore and Howard Ferguson. Twenty-four civilians also left -- including Anitra Jenkens, a public safety staff who also left in the first week of this month, according to the agency's data.

While some of the personnel routinely retired, majority of the deputies left to other agencies due to the additional workload imposed on them in an administrative effort to make up for the vacancies.

"Some of them may have been overworked," County Sheriff Alonzo Black II admitted Jan. 10. "In other words, there have been times during the last year that I had to implement mandatory overtime. I've had people working 16 hours a day."

Most of the deputies work the eight hours in court and another eight serving warrants, according to The Star's findings, which were confirmed by Black.

"Some of the people may be tired of doing that [working 16 hours] because they don't spend time with their families. Some have problems at home because they don't spend time with their kids and spouses, therefore they become discouraged because this [mandatory overtime] doesn't give them much time to do anything."

At least 20 deputies have left since Black was elected to head the county agency in November 1998, according to department statistics obtained by The Star.

The agency had 284 sworn deputies and civilian personnel in December 1994. As of Wednesday, 192 personnel -- 138 deputies and 54 civilians -- were left, according to the department's data.

Thousands of warrant orders are issued annually by judges in the county courts. For instance, the department received 29,064 criminal orders in 1999, including 6,200 restraining orders on domestic violence cases.

Besides inadequate staffing, the county's sheriff department has repeatedly failed to meet national accreditation standards, a situation that has deprived the agency of several state and federal grants. Other county public safety agencies -- the county police department, fire department and the department of corrections -- are nationally accredited.

Black said last week that national accreditation for the department is one of his goals.

"Let's just say that before I came on board there was no interest in raising the standard, but I want to raise the standard so that we will be seen as a premier law enforcement agency in Prince George's County, in the state and in the country," said Black, a former prosecuting attorney in the county's Circuit and District courts. "In order to be accredited we must raise the standards of the office, and in order to do that we must have adequate manpower and adequate funding."

Lack of funds has also denied the agency of adequate computers needed for effective recording and execution of warrants and other personnel details. Out of an estimated 200 computers needed in the department, 56 were recently installed. A year ago, there were only a few old ones, according to agency statistics.

The funding problem of the sheriff department can be traced to pending litigation in Charles County that started in the Prince George's County Circuit Court with four separate parties.

After the county executive decided to slash the department's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, 1996, then County Sheriff James Aluisi reassigned sheriff deputies from serving "take-up" warrants to landlords and tenants to focus on domestic violence cases.

"I chose to have my deputies focus on areas where safety and lives of people were involved, rather than serve eviction notices," Aluisi said Wednesday. "It's not true that the county was having financial problem because other agencies kept their budget while I had a 40 percent reduction of my budget, and the county's financial officer testified in court that there were funds."

Months before the 1996 fiscal year started, Southern Management -- owners of a county apartment complex -- sued the sheriff department and the office of the county executive for failure to serve warrants for eviction notices promptly, making it difficult for them and other landlords to remove defaulting tenants. They argued that they were losing money because the affected tenants lived in the apartment without paying their rents.

Aluisi responded by suing the office of the county executive for not providing him with adequate funds needed to hire enough personnel for the department.

The apartment owners later withdrew the suit against the county when the office of the county executive explained to them that the sheriff department had enough funds to serve the warrants since the budget cut would not be effective until July, according to county attorney Sean Wallace.

The office of the county executive then counter-sued the sheriff department and the state separately. In one suit, it alleged that Aluisi was mismanaging the department. In the other suit, it insisted that the state was responsible for paying the services of sheriff deputies in the courthouse.

"I found out that the state of Maryland was legislatively responsible to pay the cost of security in the District Court since 1971, but the people of Prince George's County have been paying the cost of District Court security," County Executive Wayne Curry said Jan. 10. "We are the only jurisdiction treated that way, so I went [to Annapolis] and asked for help, for the state to pay its fair share of the cost of District Court cost."

In 1997, Judge Steven Chappelle, a judge in Charles County, was brought in to handle the case since he was not from the county.

Chappelle ruled at the Prince George's County Circuit Court that the county was liable for the court costs for sheriff deputies. The county appealed, and in June the Appeals Court ruled that while the county was responsible for paying sheriff deputies for serving warrants, the state was responsible for paying for the courthouse security provided by sheriff deputies. The order required the state to pay the county more than $100,000 annually in payment dating back to 1971, and to pay for future security provided by the deputies from July 1999.

The state filed a motion challenging that ruling by the Appeals Court. Chappelle will hear the state's motion on Feb. 23 in Charles County Circuit Court. Meanwhile, the case against Sheriff Aluisi automatically ended when Black succeeded Aluisi 14 months ago.

"It's very distressing because we cannot move the Sheriff's Department forward in dealing with a lot of the warrants and a lot of the vital things that must be taken care of by the department," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Landover, chair of the county's law enforcement committee, which oversees the salaries of the sheriff department.

Benson said. "It's very difficult to do it when you don't have adequate staffing but because of the litigation and the way its been handled in court right now they cannot hire the people to do the job."

Black said that despite a problem he described as "very challenging" because of the suit that has left him with inadequate personnel, he has accomplished a lot in the area of serving warrants.

Out of 29,064 criminal warrant orders issued in 1999, 27,501 were served, according to the sheriff department's statistics dated January 5. Also, 71 percent of the 6,200 warrant orders issued for domestic violence cases last year were served, while six of the warrants were recalled by the court, according to Sgt. Bill Ament, public information officer at the sheriff department.

The court recalled six warrants and the Warrants Review Board disposed of 96 warrants, Ament said of the board set up by Sheriff Black to examine the validity of outstanding warrants.

"The reality is that we started this initiative with close to 40,000 warrants in January 1999, now we have about 38,000," Ament said. "That doesn't sound significant until you consider how much work and personnel are needed to execute one warrant."

When Aliusi sued the county five years ago, his relationship with County Executive Curry went sour. On Jan. 10, Curry and Aluisi's successor [Black] hugged publicly and announced that they have formed a new partnership that would resolve the problem.

"The new sheriff and I hopefully will be the beneficiary of this unified approach to fairness, to equity and to justice."

Black said he has formed an alliance with Curry and the county council to resolve staffing problems in his department, adding that more computers are being installed at the department to upgrade its technology.

"I anticipate that between now and June we'll be hiring more deputies and administrative personnel to enhance the manpower we need," Black said.