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Two respectable candidates bring significant law-enforcement credentials to this fall's contest for Erie County sheriff. But Patrick M. Gallivan, a Republican with the broader pertinent experience and fewer drawbacks, has the edge over Democrat Rocco J. Diina.

With Thomas F. Higgins, sheriff since 1986, not seeking a fourth four-year term, this is an especially important race. Once elected, sheriffs, who earn $79,000 a year, often remain in office for several terms.

Gallivan, 36, is an outstanding candidate of exceptional qualifications in terms of education, investigative experience and administrative skills honed during 15 years with the New York State Police.

He is a graduate of the FBI National Law Enforcement Academy and earned a master's degree in criminal justice from the State University at Albany. Gallivan leaped quickly through State Police ranks from recruit to captain before resigning to run for sheriff earlier this year. Along the way, he scored first among hundreds of statewide candidates taking exams for sergeant and lieutenant. He became the youngest captain in State Police history.

That did not happen by chance. His experience includes investigative and undercover work. He has supervised in-service training for personnel at the State Police Academy in Albany. As captain, he was responsible for the delivery of all State Police services in Erie and Wyoming counties -- as well as strategic planning.

This kind of on-target experience equips Gallivan to fulfill his pledges to review Sheriff's Department operations from top to bottom. It would help him upgrade the training of deputies and deploy people more effectively, as he says he wants to do, matching their strengths to required assignments and evaluating how extra deputies could be added to criminal work without weakening the department in other areas. Gallivan also wants to pursue state and federal grants aggressively, especially concerning technology.

If elected, Gallivan stresses, his top aides "absolutely must be competent, qualified and quality people."

Anybody can make promises. But in his 15 years with the State Police, Gallivan built a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, a leader who went by the book and did not bend the rules. As one area police chief who worked with him put it, Gallivan had "an enormous amount of knowledge about policing" and would make the tough decisions.

This is not to belittle the record of Diina, 47, whose yellow-and-black campaign signs dot the county. He has performed ably in a demanding job since becoming deputy commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department in 1994 under Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske.

Diina is articulate and works well with others. His diplomatic skills could help repair the frayed communications between the Sheriff's Department and County Executive Gorski. Diina supports such reforms as central police booking and community policing, which he has worked to implement in the Buffalo department.

However, Diina's academic credentials are unimpressive and he is, in a sense, victimized in this contest by his own success in building, with his brother, a leading private policing agency, RJD Security Inc.

As founder of this family business, he would always be vulnerable to potential conflicts between his personal financial interests and his public responsibilities as sheriff. It's a vulnerability that Gallivan has driven home in this campaign with some success.

It should be emphasized that no charges of damage from such conflicts have arisen during Diina's present tenure as Buffalo's Number 2 cop. There would be, however, a key difference in accountability as sheriff. As deputy commissioner, he works under Commissioner Kerlikowske. As sheriff, he would be the department's top official.

RJD Security has won contracts with Erie County agencies in the past. Opportunities to mix the two security agencies -- one public, the other private -- and their personnel pose risks the public cannot responsibly ignore. Diina's close, carefully cultivated political connections over many years also raise questions about his ability to make tough non-political decisions as sheriff.

There is one other consideration for county voters here: These vulnerabilities would be less conspicuous if Diina confronted a less qualified opponent. But Gallivan offers voters exceptional personal and professional credentials.

There is a third candidate in this race, Deputy Charles E. Burkhardt. He lacks major-party support.

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