News Column

Neuman's loss leaves futures of police, fire chiefs uncertain

July 1, 2014

By Ben Weathers, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.



July 01--County Executive Laura Neuman's loss to Del. Steve Schuh in the Republican primary last week leaves uncertain the future of Anne Arundel's public safety leadership.

Police Chief Kevin Davis and Fire Chief Michael Cox have had cordial relationships with county union officials since the chiefs were appointed by Neuman last year. That wasn't the case with Neuman's predecessor, and that goodwill could be lost when a new county executive is elected in November.

With Neuman out, Schuh will face Democrat George Johnson in the general election. The winner will have a chance to pick a new police chief, said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge.

"Everybody expects, no matter who gets elected, they're going to bring in their own police chief," Atkison said.

Keith Whalen, president of the union that represents the bulk of the county's firefighters, said there was similar anxiety over Cox's future as fire chief.

"Does Chief Cox stay? Does Chief Cox go? The bottom line -- it's really the unknown," Whalen said.

Under Cox, the fire department has cut its 911 call processing time in half. Cox was also instrumental in placing more ambulances out in the field and reallocating staff to beef up personnel at some of the department's understaffed firehouses.

In Anne Arundel, more than 30 positions, including police and fire chiefs, are appointed by the county executive.

Johnson praised Davis and Cox -- but said that it would be inappropriate to comment on personnel decisions prior to the election.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning Schuh also commended Davis and Cox but said he had not made any staffing decisions.

"My approach is going to be able to try retain as much continuity as possible," Schuh said. "There's been too much disruption over the past few years."

Both police and fire unions will be interviewing the candidates and making endorsements in the weeks and months leading up to the general election.

Davis, in particular, has been as a calming force on his department, Atkinson said. The police force was embroiled in controversy during the administration of former County Executive John R. Leopold.

Leopold ultimately resigned after being convicted of misconduct in office. The convictions stemmed in part from his use of the police security detail.

"We've had so much turmoil and turnover in the police department over the last several years. It's been destructive to morale, it's hampered productivity," Atkinson said. "Most people will agree that we finally got on secure footing with the appointment of Chief Davis."

Under Davis, the department launched an initiative to combat heroin overdoses at the southern edge of the county. The department became one of the first in the region to equip officers with a drug to counteract the effects of heroin overdoses.

Atkinson noted that a new police chief would likely also mean a new assistant chief and chief of staff in the department, since the County Council last year approved legislation allowing the county's top cop to handpick the positions.

"A substantial chunk of our command structure is going to be changed as a result" of the election, Atkinson said. "It's a little frightening."

In recent years, the County Council has considered making the police chief a contracted position, as it is in other jurisdictions, said Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Edgewater.

The county's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge has supported the idea, Atkinson said. Atkinson said that police chiefs should have autonomy to make decisions free from political influence.

Such a move would require an amendment to the County Charter, Walker said.

There's little time to vote on such an amendment before November, said Councilman Derek Fink, R-Pasadena.

"I don't think we can change the system based on the personalities of two people we like," Fink said. "Even if the charter amendment would pass, both chiefs would have to be given a contract by the next county executive."

Johnson said that he would be willing to entertain the notion, however said that the next county executive deserves to be able to form his own team.

Schuh flatly rejected the idea as "undemocratic."

"Those professional need to share the philosophy of the chief executive," Schuh said.

Reached by phone last week, Davis and Cox said they were not concerned about job security after November.

"Any chief realizes when you accept the position that you work at the pleasure of the county executive," Davis said. "I'd be doing the men and women of the agency a disservice if I became preoccupied."

"Elections occur on a normal schedule, departments deal with them all the time," Cox said. "We leave politics to politicians. It's my responsibility to lead no matter what's going on."

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(c)2014 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

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Source: Capital (Annapolis, MD)


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