Bill would formalize sheriff powers
September 11, 2010
It’s common knowledge that county sheriffs are law enforcement personnel.
In Pennsylvania, it’s only common law that gives them their authority.
Warren County Sheriff Larry Kopko, his colleagues across the state, and the Sheriffs’ Association of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are putting their support behind House Bill 2585 to formalize the duties and powers given to sheriffs and their deputies.
“This bill, once we get it passed, would for once and for all define the duties and the powers of the sheriff,” Kopko said. “Those duties and powers will be defined and put in statute.”
Kopko said there is no question in his mind that sheriffs and deputies already have the authority that would be put into writing if HB 2585 were to pass.
“We’ve never lost our authority,” he said. But, “it’s been challenged.”
In many cases, sheriffs and deputies have been relegated to acting as the security arm of the court and transporting prisoners.
“We are being deprived of the job that we were sworn to do,” Kopko said.
And Pennsylvania is being deprived of the law enforcement services of thousands of trained officers.
“You have around 2,500 deputies that have already been schooled, already been trained,” he said.
In a time in which departments are downsizing and budgets are being cut, sheriffs and deputies could be picking up the slack, if they were authorized.
“The court has come out and said unless the sheriff actually views an offense he has no more authority than the common citizen,” Kopko said. “That flies in the face of common sense.”
Even in the courthouse, if Kopko walks into the courtroom and sees the judge bleeding from an assault and sees someone running out of the courtroom, he cannot make an arrest, he said. “I have to call the city police to come and do the investigation.”
“It’s created a problem in that the sheriffs and the deputies don’t know when they can act and when they can’t act,” Kopko said. “When they go out to do their job serving warrants or whatever, I’ve had deputies challenged.”
Those challenges can lead to confrontations or to an officer hesitation. Neither of those is a good situation, Kopko said.
“Any time somebody challenges that authority it opens the door to my deputy getting hurt or that citizen getting hurt,” he said.
Deputies receive at least as much initial training as municipal police officers, he said.
“I have 12 deputies,” Kopko said. “Our guys go to the academy for 760 hours. They’re Act II certified when they come out.”
The Act 120 requirements for municipal police officers mandate 752 hours of training.
Kopko cited Tidioute Police Chief Steve Vincent, who works part-time in the Forest County sheriff’s office.
“In Tidioute he has full police powers,” Kopko said. “... in Forest County, his powers are limited to what he sees. Same officer, same training, different uniform.”
According to Kopko, some of those who oppose HB 2585 say taxes will go up if the bill passes.
“We’ve been doing it all along, except for those things that are absolutely prohibited,” he said. “It’s not going to raise taxes. No matter what budget I set, it has be approved by the salary board and the county commissioners.”
Some opposition has come from police organizations that fear losing jobs, he said.
But, with fewer officers on the streets due to budget cuts and some small departments disappearing entirely, “we’re looking out for the safety of the citizens of this commonwealth,” he said.
House Bill 2585 could settle all the issues and Kopko said there is plenty of local support for it — from police chiefs, county commissioners, the district attorney’s office, and the local Fraternal Order of Police.
“This needs to be put to rest with House Bill 2585,” Kopko said. “We’re very, very hopeful that it’s going to come out of committee. It may not get passed this year because there may not be enough time.”
If that happens, “we’ll push harder next year.”
The sheriffs association asks those who support its efforts to pass the bill to contact their local legislators.