Expanding powers of sheriffs potentially troublesome
There’s a bill in the state House that would increase the arrest and investigative powers of county sheriffs that holds particular interest in Westmoreland County.
It’s the kind of increased power that embattled Sheriff Jonathan Held once tried to exercise.
We question the cost.
The Trib’s Westmoreland editorial board foresees sheriffs asking for more resources that likely would require a large influx of cash in the form of taxpayer dollars.
Other opponents believe that increased power could spawn larger sheriff’s forces. And that sounds like turf wars could result.
Then there’s Sheriff Held.
The county commissioners want the state Legislature to impeach him. He’s charged with three crimes accusing him of theft for allegedly diverting county resources toward his re-election campaign. He is to be arraigned May 16 in his public-corruption case.
He’s cost taxpayers $250,000-plus for 11 lawsuits’ settlements and legal fees, and still faces more lawsuits.
For years, the county commissioners routinely criticized him about operations of his office, his staffing and internal problems. They battled with him several times as he sought to increase staffing.
Specific to House Bill 466, in 2014, Held planned to assume police functions and back up city police officers in Jeannette. The city police rebuffed the idea, and Jeannette’s solicitor said state law prohibited it.
With the exception of Allegheny County in the region, the duties and policing powers of sheriffs and their deputies are more limited than municipal or state police.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver County, would allow sheriffs and deputies who complete the same type of training as municipal police officers to investigate and make arrests for certain crimes that they didn’t witness, such as a burglary. Now they have to call in municipal or state police to investigate.
Marshall says his intent is to provide another line of crime fighters to the cadre of state troopers and municipal police.
But the state District Attorneys Association, state and municipal police unions oppose the bill, as did every Democrat on the House State Government Committee that sent the bill to the floor. Police say their union protections keep political meddling at bay. In Pennsylvania, some sheriffs are appointed but others are elected, like in Westmoreland County.
Supporters say it would put more manpower on the streets to battle certain drug-related crimes and gun violence.
On the face of it, the bill shouldn’t pose much of an issue, but we think it potentially opens a six-pack of worms.
And the circumstances that surround Held are perhaps a prime exhibit as to why sheriff’s powers should remain limited.