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TOO MUCH POLITICS IN THE SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT

Reports of deputies solicited for political contributions by their superiors in the Sheriff's Department reveal an activity that, however common, scars this Erie County law-enforcement agency and ought to be stopped.

Some departmental comments suggest that requests to buy political tickets are common practice, especially if the contacts are made during off-duty hours. Because everybody does it, though, doesn't excuse violations of State Election Law.

Nor does this practice conform to the level of professionalism in the Sheriff's Department to which everyone -- including, we assume, Sheriff Thomas Higgins -- hopefully aspires.

"I got tickets in the mail from (Undersheriff) Jerry Mack," one deputy told The News. "While I didn't feel pressured, I know others did. But I thought it was insulting to get something like that from the second in command. I thought it was out place."

It was, as were reported requests for political contributions by lieutenants and captains. Mack says he kept his title off solicitation letters and barred any requests made on county time or county property, but that doesn't clean the slate.

It merely splits hairs. After all, what real difference does that make in terms of the intimidation that can occur when bosses ask those responsible to them in their jobs to purchase a few tickets to party fund-raisers? Surely, deputies know the name of the undersheriff, whether or not his title is on the letter. Surely, the request carries the same implications whether it is made on-duty or off-duty.

"Since 1821, sheriffs have run for office in Erie County," Sheriff Higgins says. "I'm sure deputies sold tickets for Grover Cleveland when he was sheriff and all the sheriffs since."

So what? Deputies were not appointed from civil service lists in 1821, either. Does Higgins want to junk that reform and return to the 19th century political spoils system?

If those soliciting support really are unaware of either the state prohibitions or the sound reasons for it, what does that say about the alertness and professionalism of the department? What does ignorance of the law say about those sworn to uphold the law?

The rationale for barring higher-ups from asking deputies under their command for political contributions is simple and clear. In a military-style command system, the requests raise public suspicions of coercion, unwholesome political pressure, fears of political favoritism and a breakdown of even-handed professionalism in county law enforcement.

If everybody does it, that's not a defense. It simply confirms public suspicions that something's amiss.

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