EDITORIAL: Let sheriff's deputies police

The York Dispatch Editorial Board
Residents make their feelings known during the North Codorus Township supervisor's vote on police services during a meeting Tuesday, July 16, 2019. The supervisors unanimously voted "yes" to employ the services Northern York County Regional Police in the township. Bill Kalina photo

The fix for York County's policing woes that are roiling communities and jacking up taxes isn't a mystery. In fact, it's common practice in almost every other state in the U.S.

Here's a thought: Return police powers to sheriff's deputies.

Throughout the country, the local sheriff serves as a county's top cop. An elected official, voters regularly head to the polls to judge his or her performance and priorities. And deputies patrol the hinterlands that go uncovered by municipal police and state police alike.

All county taxpayers foot the bill and the elected members of the county board oversee the budget. 

But thanks to legislative inaction and wide-ranging state court decisions, deputies in Pennsylvania are relegated to guard duty. They serve warrants. They handle security at courthouses.

They're generally barred from actual police work.

Providing police service is the largest single expense for many municipalities. Communities in Pennsylvania began pooling their limited resources with regional departments in the early 1970s. The trend began in York County with Northern Regional, and the county now touts five regional departments.

But not even those multi-jurisdictional forces are immune from financial pressure.  

Representatives from member communities on regional police boards bicker about who's paying their fair share. Costs continue to increase. And towns jump ship for a better deal, which is precisely what North Codorus did recently before striking a coverage deal with Northern Regional. 

The Southwestern Regional Police Department is expected to collapse by year's end as a result of North Codorus' exit. Manheim Township, too, voted this week to ditch Southwestern for Northern. 

Not that a municipality has to provide police service, either its own or through a regional department. If it chooses not to, the state police will step in and provide the service at no extra charge — meaning every Pennsylvania taxpayer foots that particular bill.

That's what Red Lion did in 2015, when it abandoned York Area Regional over rising costs. The borough is now patrolled by troopers.

To address that unfairness, Gov. Tom Wolf and some Democratic legislators over the summer proposed adding a fee for those municipalities that rely solely on the state police for coverage.

A better solution may be staring us in the face, armed and ready to serve.

By vesting the existing county-wide sheriff's department with full law enforcement powers, local municipal departments could, feasibly, cut back on staff, once deputies were on patrol. And, in some states, local municipalities even contract with the sheriff's office for additional police coverage.

That's how it's done. And it's far more efficient and fair than the patchwork now in place because Pennsylvania law hasn't been updated in decades.

 In 2017, state Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Butler, reached the same conclusion and introduced legislation to return full police powers to sheriff's deputies.

Pennsylvania Sheriffs' Association unsurprisingly backed Butler's bill. But a slew of lobbying groups associated with municipal police departments won the day and killed the bill.

The death of House Bill 466 was a loss for Pennsylvania taxpayers. It was a blow to communities struggling to maintain police service amid ever-higher costs.

And it was a win for a status quo that's leaving too many citizens wondering who will respond when they need it most.