EDITORIAL: Mug shot confusion eroding confidence

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Richard P. Keuerleber speaks after taking the oath of office as York County Sheriff during a ceremony at the York County Administrative Center Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Oaths of office were administered to county and court officials. Bill Kalina photo

After a brief blackout period, York County’s Central Booking Unit has resumed providing the media and the public with photos of criminal defendants arraigned in the unit.

The move may be only temporary, but York County Sheriff Rich Keuerleber insists that’s just until the powers that be sort out which law enforcement agency should be responsible for disseminating the information — not whether the information should be public at all.

As long as the information is made available in a timely manner, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside the departments much caring who’s in charge.

So, while it all sounds like a case of solving a problem that didn’t really exist, we’ll take the sheriff at his word.

Because the sudden decision last month to rescind the practice of releasing mug shots and related booking information was not only poorly communicated and arbitrary, it made for some pretty poor optics — particularly coming on the heels of Keuerleber’s dismissal of several perceived political opponents from within the sheriff’s department.

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After handily winning reelection in November, Keuerleber appeared to be settling a few political scores when three deputies and two civilian employees were summarily booted from the sheriff’s office, a move at least one of the former deputies characterized as political payback. A fourth deputy resigned before she could be fired.

Keuerleber wouldn’t provide much in the way of specifics about the half-dozen departures, other than to offer that, “We look forward to restructuring and moving in a different direction.” A pro-Keuerleber direction, it appeared.

After all, the sheriff’s imperiousness was already well documented. A York County judge issued an emergency order requiring the sheriff’s office to properly screen anyone coming into that judge's courtroom last summer after Keueleber allowed a friend — convicted felon Bill Hynes, no less — to park in the judicial center’s private lot, skirt security and attend a hearing at which Hynes’ ex-girlfriend was seeking a protection from abuse order against him.

According to Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, the sheriff claimed he had "sole discretion" to disregard security protocol.

Regardless, the sheriff was "derelict" in his duties, according to the York County Commissioners.

And last year’s campaign — in which Keuerleber fended off a challenge by fellow Republican Shane Becker, a former York County deputy running as a Democrat — included allegations of a toxic work environment in the sheriff’s office. "Arrogant" and "autocratic" were among the words used to describe Keuerleber. Becker was just one of several deputies to have left for other departments.

"Start treating your employees with respect and … clean up the hostile work environment," he advised the sheriff in conceding the race on election night. "I left there for a reason."

The subsequent announcement, then, that access to public records was being restricted rightly raised concerns as to motive — especially since the sheriff’s office said the move was ordered by President Magisterial District Judge David Eshbach, a personal friend of Keuerleber’s.

The sheriff’s new explanation seems to lay those apprehensions to rest, so long as the departments are quick about deciding how the materials will be provided and who will be in charge.

Not that this removes the sour taste left by the sheriff’s office departures.

A county sheriff should be respected, not feared. His motives should be honorable, not questionable. His actions should serve the public good, not private point-keeping.

York County residents entrusted Keuerleber with a vote of confidence in November. That confidence was eroded by the loss of a half-dozen veteran department employees.

Once the matter is finalized, reversing the decision to restrict public materials would be a welcome step toward rebuilding that confidence.