By now, everyone and their mother has heard of the feud between Sheriff Jeff Christopher and the Sussex County Council, particularly with Councilman Vance Phillips. For those of you who haven’t, though, the Sheriff has charged the County Council with trying to undermine the Sheriff’s office and to make it an appointed position. The Council denies those allegations. Christopher has also proposed a budget which is 33% larger than the operating budget from the last fiscal year which, in my opinion, contradicts the conservative message he campaigned on. Nevertheless, it has become apparent to me that he is asking for much more than simply upgraded guns and cool new uniforms for his Barney Fife’s. He clearly wants Sussex County to have its own police department.
To be fair, Christopher has not outright said this is his intentions, but listening to speeches he has given and when he called in to WGMD during Angel Clark’s interview with Vance Phillips last week, one can make a fairly good assumption. He was slick with his wording, but he constantly used straw man arguments and hypothetical situations where his deputies would need police powers. He argues that the Delaware constitution grants county sheriff offices with police power, but does it? Councilman Phillips, who argues that Sheriff Christopher is wanting more than he can legally and fiscally afford, has the facts on his side. Article XV says that the sheriff departments shall be “conservators of the peace”, but no clear definition is given. In fact, judges and chancellors are also referred to as conservators of the peace but I doubt Judge Bill Lee took this description and thought he was granted police powers. So, one must then refer to Delaware State Code to gain a complete understanding of the proper duties of the Sussex County Sheriff’s department. Title 10, chapter 21 reads:
“Details the duties of the Sheriff.
Employing deputies, Attendance on courts, Summoning of jurors and witnesses, Sale of property, Entry of constable sales, etc.”
Title 11 goes into more detail:
“Law-enforcement officer” includes police officers, the Attorney General and the Attorney General’s deputies, sheriffs and their regular deputies agents of the State Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement, correctional officers, state fire marshals, municipal fire marshals that are graduates of a Delaware Police Academy which is accredited/authorized by the Council on Police Training, sworn members of the City of Wilmington Fire Department who have graduated from a Delaware Police Academy which is authorized/accredited by the Council on Police Training, environmental protection officers, enforcement agents of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and constables.”
Still broad, but Chapter 19 is what should be focused on:
“Police officers; statewide authority. (a) For purposes of this section “police officer” means any police officer holding current certification by the Council on Police Training as provided by Chapter 84 of this title and who is a (1) A member of the Delaware State Police; (2) A member of the New Castle County Police; (3) A member of the police department, bureau or force of any incorporated city or town; (4) A member of the Delaware River and Bay Authority Police; (5) A member of the Capitol Police(6) A member of the University of Delaware Police; (7) A law enforcement officer of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control; (8) An agent of the State Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement ; (9) An officer or agent of the State Office of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs(10) A state detective or special investigator of the Department of Justice; or(11) Delaware State University Police.”
This clearly describes who in the state has police powers, and the sheriff’s office is not included. In order for Sheriff Christopher to get what he wants, he’ll have to have state officials change the office’s job description first.
From a more practical standpoint, a county police force is not fiscally responsible. Currently Sussex County has a contract in place with the Delaware State Police where 40 additional police officers patrol the streets of Sussex specifically for a mere $1.5 million. New Castle County’s police department costs roughly $50 million a year. Now, I don’t think a Sussex police force would cost that much, but with benefits, healthcare, vehicles and maintenance, etc. the price tag would be much more than $1.5 million.
Councilman Phillips, who is leading the County Council’s side of the debate on this matter, is completely right. Sheriff Christopher is asking for too much. The Sussex County Sheriff’s office can not and should not be transformed into a full-fledged police force.