State Sen. Charles Gilchrist, a Democratic candidate for Montgomery County executive, criticized Montgomery County Police Chief Robert J. diGrazia yesterday for "downgrading" the traditional law enforcement role of police officers, thereby injecting the controversal police chief into the county executive campaign for the first time.
Just four days after the county chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police announced its "no-confidence" vote in diGrazia, Gilchrist cited "disturbing morale" problems as evidence that in modernizing the police department, "we have overdone it."
While refusing to say whether he would fire diGrazia, if elected, Gilchrist said that he had some serious differences with the "tenor of the police department right now."
Gilchrist's public safety platform was issued on the evening before GOP planned to interview candidates for county executive. It was immediately denounced by his opponents.
"I hate to put it this way, but he has thrown more gasoline on the fires," said Democratic executive candidate John Menke.
Dissatisfaction with diGrazia has been brewing for months among some reformers. He has disdained the traditional philosophy of policing under which police officers were trained to operate more like social workers than heroes of TV cop shows.
But Lenny Simpson, FOP spokesman, said the "social worker syndrome is not adequate" for many officers.
Gilchrist's criticism of the police department echoed many of the FOP's sentiments.
He denounced the "abandonment of efforts to find leadership from within the ranks of the police force" and the "distortion of the merit system by making a non-officer second in command." (DiGrazia's assistant, Philip Marks, is a civilian.)
Gilchrist also criticized diGrazia's hiring of a civilian "with absolutely no background in the life-risk aspects of police work" to head the police training academy. He said it was wrong that only 15 promotions have occurred in the 750-member department since the new chief took over.
A spokesman for diGrazia said the chief declined to comment on Gilchrist's statements because as a "professional police administrator, he would not get involved in election politics."
Gilchrist also recommended that fire and rescue services be placed under a central authority, another long simmering controversy among volunteer firefighters who would lose their control over department operations under a consolidated system.
Gilchrist called for a countrywide fire system as a cost-saving replacement for the independent status now held by 16 fire departments made up of both professionals and volunteers.
Although Gilchrist said he wanted to "protect" the volunteers, his recommendation to centralize the authority has been urged by the paid firefighters whose union recently endorsed his candidacy without interviewing other contenders for the executive post.
"Charlie has proven to be our friend," said Lt. Tom Finnin, head of Local 1664, citing Gilchrist's legislative efforts on the paid firefighters' behalf.
The career firefighters have been upset with the force's leadership under a quasi-executive fire board that is dominated by volunteer firefighters.
However, Gilchrist's opponents criticized his fire service proposals as potentially too expensive because they could alienate volunteer firefighters whose executive, denounced it as lars annually.
"There certainly is a need for better central management," said Royce Hanson, another Democratic candidate. "But we want to do it in a way to retain as much as possible the services of volunteers."
Menke called Gilchrist's approach "like a bull in a china shop." Albert Ceccone, a Republican candidate for county executive, denounced it as "fiscally irresponsible," and Richmond M. Kennedy, another Republican emphasized the necessity for maintaining a "part-paid, part-volunteer" force.
Hanson, Menke, Keeney and Ceccone also said that despite apparent morale problems in the police force, they would not discuss the issue in their campaigns. "The last thing that needs to be done is to make it a political football," said Hanson.