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Westmoreland sheriff's 'patrol' plan criticized

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held has a dream where uniformed deputies in marked cars criss-cross the streets of Jeannette 24 hours a day to serve warrants and “to back up Jeannette police if needed.”

County Commissioner Charles Anderson says that would be a nightmare.

Others say Held's plan sounds suspiciously like police patrols, which would fly against repeated court rulings about the powers of sheriff's deputies.

Anderson said Held should mind his own business — protecting courtrooms, shuttling inmates, serving warrants, handing out gun permits and overseeing sales of foreclosed properties.

“I'm on record as saying the sheriff's department is not law enforcement,” Anderson said. “I'm sure the sheriff is looking to help and his heart is in the right place. He needs to be looking at what's going on in the county and not in the municipalities.”

Held has bigger ideas on how to use 54 full-time and 19 part-time deputies and his $4.8 million annual budget.

The first-term sheriff said he wants to help the struggling city with a program he calls PASS — Presence, Apprehension, Support and Security.

“My hope is to reduce crime in the city of Jeannette, reduce crime and deter it,” Held said. “Our focus right now is just on Jeannette because of their obvious budget and manpower issues.”

That comes as news to city solicitor Scott Avolio.

City officials have not been broached about the plan, Avolio said. Held wants to start the round-the-clock coverage in February, armed with 1,700 outstanding warrants for citizens with city addresses.

“Jeannette is always willing to consider any option that will benefit the citizens; however, the police chief, mayor and council will have to be convinced any plan by the sheriff's department is helpful,” Avolio said.

County solicitor R. Mark Gesalman is doubtful. Appellate courts have repeatedly ruled that departments like Held's have no police powers, he said.

“We cannot investigate, but if we see a crime we can make an arrest. We're focusing more on getting wanted perpetrators off the street,” Held said.

He is careful to say deputies will assist police when asked to do so and make arrests if they witness crimes.

Nevertheless, Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said that “pushes the envelope.”

“One thing is very clear — they can make an arrest like any citizen can make an arrest if they see a crime committed,” Hill said.

PASS, however, “sounds like patrol by another name,” Hill said.

Held envisions extending the program to other cities.

Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis said he would not reject the help outright. “If they offer it, I'll take it to (city) council,” he said.

In a 2011 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled only the Legislature can bequeath to deputy sheriffs the powers Held would like them to have.

“We reiterate ... that they are not police officers — nor are they invested with general police powers beyond the authority to arrest for in-presence breaches of the peace and felonies — in the absence of express legislative designation,” the court said.

State Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union, would like to make Held's dream come true with a bill before the House Judiciary Committee.

“I think they should have all police powers,” Mahoney said. “People need to wake up. We have a drug epidemic that's out of control, and the only way we're going to curb it is to give sheriffs more power. I just think it's wasted manpower we can be using.”

Mahoney said he wants to give sheriffs in all counties the powers given by the Legislature to departments in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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