Keeping the county at peace

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Robert Friedman

Jim Fitzgerald is serving his third term as sheriff of Howard County. The sheriff’s office — which includes 54 deputies — works primarily with the Circuit Court, where it serves arrest warrants, transports prisoners to court proceedings, and maintains security with a canine unit.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Sheriffs Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson helped keep the peace in the Wild West. Here in not-all-that-wild Howard County, it’s Jim Fitzgerald who wears the sheriff’s badge.

Fitzgerald, a resident of Ellicott City who was born in the Bronx, has been our county sheriff since 2006.

Unlike other law enforcement positions, just about all of the nation’s 3,080 sheriffs, including Fitzgerald, are elected to office rather than appointed.

As a result, you could say that sheriffs are the only law enforcement agency heads in the nation who are directly responsible to the people, who vote them in or out of office.

Not much politics

Fitzgerald, 68 and a Democrat, is now in his third term of office. His three election victories, Fitzgerald said, can be explained by two words: “commitment and service.”

“I served four years in the Air Force, 30-plus years in the Howard County police department, nine years as sheriff, five terms as head of the Fraternal Order of the Police (the police union’s local lodge), and have been married for 47 years. Commitment is a very important word in my life,” Fitzgerald said.

He and wife Lorraine have two daughters, one a nurse, the other a therapist. He is the county’s 53rd sheriff since the office was created in 1851.

Fitzgerald asserted in a recent interview with the Beacon that the duties of his job come first, and the politics are not a high priority.

What difference would it make in the way his office works if the sheriff of the county happened to be a Republican? “None, really,” he acknowledged.

Fitzgerald is not too eager to take public stands on such law enforcement issues as gun control or cases of police aggression against African Americans.

What he did say on the racial issue was that, “Regardless of color, I see human beings. Every human life has value.”

He did, however, express his opposition to legalizing marijuana. “I support the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” he said. “But if you legalize marijuana for everyone, there could be a lot of people dangerously high on pot driving on the highways.”

What does the sheriff do?

While the duties of sheriffs’ offices vary from state to state, the Howard County office is most responsible for security in the Circuit Court; serving court papers, including criminal warrants; extraditing fugitives held in other states; and transporting Howard County prisoners to court proceedings.

The office also runs a canine unit, whose four-legged members provide security in and around the Circuit Court.

The Howard County’s Office of the Sheriff is considered a “secondary responder.” This means that the county police answer all emergency calls first, but can also call on the sheriff for help.

Fitzgerald currently manages an office staff of 74, including 54 deputies, with a budget of $7.2 million. He noted that almost one of every three deputies and office employees (32.6 percent) is African American.

Among the services that Fitzgerald appears most proud of are the efforts by his office to try to curb domestic violence in the county. The office’s Domestic Violence Enforcement Unit is now open 24 hours, 7 days a week — a first for the county.

Is domestic violence a serious problem here? “It’s not out of control, but it appears to be spreading,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s enough of it to keep us busy.”

While he offered no figures, he said that the cases “mirror the composition of the community. “It can happen at all ages,” he said, “committed mostly by men, but also by women, of all races and backgrounds.”

The sheriff added that abused spouses “should not be ashamed of it, and should dial 911 [to report it]. If you’ve been abused once, you will be abused again.”

The 911 call goes to the county’s police. The Office of the Sheriff gets involved in further proceedings.

Ongoing responsibility

Corporal Mark Metzler, a Howard County deputy sheriff for the past seven years, gave an example of a recent case he was involved in.

He noted that an abused woman in Ellicott City obtained a court order in July to hospitalize her husband, who, among other erratic behavior, was physically abusing her and her two children, ages 12 and 9. 

Metzler picked up the husband, who was “fairly cooperative,” and brought him to Howard County General Hospital. After psychiatric treatment, he was released. But the episodes of abuse continued. The woman returned to court and got a protective order, which Metzler brought to the husband, reading its conditions to him.

The husband was forced to leave his home for seven days, pending another hearing. At that hearing, the judge issued another order barring the husband from the house for six months.

Then Metzler performed welfare checks on the woman, calling her or knocking on her door each day, morning and night, to make sure the woman and her children were safe. Several months later, “we’re still checking, though maybe not as often,” the deputy said.

Sheriff Fitzgerald has emphasized the importance he puts on these welfare checks, adding, “I’ll just say that we are going to curb domestic violence. I’m giving notice to abusers that they will be arrested and prosecuted for their unlawful actions.”

Will the sheriff, whose third term ends in 2018, run for a fourth? “I could be there for life,” he joked — more or less.

Being a law enforcer, he noted, is “a family thing.” Both his father and brother had been members of the New York Police Department.

While his father never really told him why he had joined the police force, Fitzgerald said simply that being an officer of the law is “a good, honest profession. You help people. You can make a difference every day in someone’s life.”