No computer, but Baltimore sheriff runs on experience in reelection bid

As incumbent John W. Anderson seeks a ninth term, he faces a challenge from a former top deputy

Published on: June 23, 2022 11:15 AM EDT|Updated on: July 22, 2022 6:23 PM EDT

Baltimore City Sheriff John W. Anderson is photographed while being interviewed by a Baltimore Banner reporter on Thursday, May 26.
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In the office of Baltimore Sheriff John W. Anderson hangs an autographed photograph of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who first appointed Anderson to the role in 1989. There are plaques and trophies and pictures of the sheriff with political leaders from his decades in office. There is even a Bible studded with sticky notes on the sheriff’s glossy desk.

But one thing you will not find in Anderson’s office is a computer.

“This is the way I operate,” said Anderson, 75, the state’s longest-serving sheriff. “If I need something, I have Ms. Ware. She’s capable.” Indeed his assistant, Jaqueline Ware, functions as a sort of human Alexa, hurrying to the sheriff’s inner sanctum to field questions — for example, how many deputies are currently in the department? — then scurrying to her desk to look up the figure on her computer before returning with the answer (in this case, 105).

Anderson is running for his ninth four-year term as sheriff, a position that many city voters give little thought to. But his challenger, Sam Cogen, a former top deputy, would like to change that. Cogen, 48, believes that the sheriff’s office could and should take a more active role in reducing violent crime in the city, in part by adopting modern technology to make the office more efficient.

“People don’t know who the sheriff is. They don’t know what the sheriff’s office does. There’s a lack of accountability. There’s a lack of transparency. Other jurisdictions have modernized their sheriffs’ offices,” said Cogen. “Why haven’t we?”

When asked to explain why he should be granted another term, Anderson said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You’ve got a winning team here. I’m you’re guy. I’m your man.

“What I’m most proud of is the image we have here. We are well-respected by the judiciary, well-respected by the public. We are a community-oriented agency,” he said.

When asked multiple times how the sheriff’s office has improved under his three decades of leadership, Anderson did not point to sweeping changes or broad innovations. Instead, he pointed to smaller initiatives, such as a neighborhood patrol program that he instituted over a decade ago. Sheriff’s deputies will patrol certain neighborhoods — including the Belair Road corridor, Sandtown-Winchester and Fells Point — at the request of community leaders. The department has also partnered with the James Mosher Baseball League to provide security at games, he said.

“Anytime we get an email from the public, we act on it right away,” said Anderson, giving an example of a man who contacted his office concerned about the safety at his sister’s liquor store in East Baltimore. “We had the warrant team go out and evaluate. I even went out there myself.”

Both Anderson and Cogen are running as Democrats; no Republican has entered the race. That means the contest will be decided by the July 19 primary election. According to campaign finance reports filed last week, Anderson has $58,263; Cogen has $43,875.

Anderson has drawn scrutiny from City Council members in recent weeks. He did not attend a council hearing on the budget for his office earlier this month, saying he was quarantined due to COVID-19. However, he attended a fundraiser for his campaign the next day, as reported by Fox45. Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the Ways & Means committee, said the hearing would be postponed until Anderson could attend. The council rescheduled the hearing for Tuesday.

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In addition, Councilman Ryan Dorsey of Northeast Baltimore last week requested that the city’s inspector general, Isabel Cumming, look into Anderson’s purchase of a billboard that the sheriff’s office purchased in May for $22,000. It prominently features Anderson’s image and name and says, “PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT.”

“On its face this would seem like a use of public funds for purposes of electioneering,” Dorsey wrote, noting that this was the first billboard purchased by the sheriff’s office in three years and that it went up shortly before mail-in ballots for the primary election were mailed. It also represents the largest purchase ever by the sheriff’s office, Dorsey said. “The smell of impropriety seems too great to ignore.”

The sheriff’s office has also come under fire from a tenants’ rights group, Baltimore Renters United. It contends that the sheriff’s office will not disclose to tenants when evictions are scheduled, but will share that information with landlords. Moreover, deputies often post eviction notices on the front door of apartment complexes or in mail rooms, rather than on the door to an individual apartment, said Detrese Dowridge, an organizer with Baltimore Renters United. This violates a 2001 opinion from the state attorney general. “They’re not following constitutional law, and they’re not treating tenants with the same respect they’re treating landlords,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center who is working with the renters’ group.

Dayvon Love, policy director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank that advances the policy interests of Black Baltimoreans, noted that Anderson has deep political connections and will be hard to unseat. He added that the sheriff’s office could be used as a pulpit to advocate for law enforcement reform in the city.

“Being sheriff would allow someone to make a difference without actually being in the police department,” he said. Love said Cogen’s aims were reminiscent of other progressives running for law enforcement posts nationwide. “I don’t know how much headway he’ll make, given how popular John Anderson is,” he said. “But I imagine [that] moving forward, future challengers will look to Cogen’s platform as a blueprint.”

Maryland’s key role in tradition of sheriffs

The powers of a sheriff vary widely by state and by county. In some places, the sheriff is the sole law enforcement power. In the city of Baltimore, however, the police handle most aspects of law enforcement. Here the sheriff supervises a staff that provides courthouse security, transports prisoners to and from the court buildings, serves warrants and domestic violence protective orders, and enforces evictions. Individual sheriff’s offices are allowed to assume much broader policing duties under the state constitution, including apprehending fugitives, arresting felons and general law enforcement.

The tradition of an elected sheriff stretches back centuries, according to Patrick Royal, a spokesman for the National Association of Sheriffs. The first sheriffs enforced the king’s laws in British shires. They were originally called “shire reeves,” a term that morphed into “sheriff.” Maryland holds a key role in establishing the tradition of sheriffs in this country. The first sheriff in the New World was appointed in St. Mary’s County in 1634, according to the Maryland Association of Sheriffs. Since 1867, the state constitution has required that all sheriffs be elected, so they answer to the public.

In Maryland, as in many other jurisdictions, there are no limits on the time a sheriff can hold office. While Anderson is the longest-serving sheriff in the state, several Maryland sheriffs have held office for 15 or 20 years. And Anderson is practically a newcomer compared to some officials around the country. The sheriff of San Miguel County, Colorado, has been in office for 41 years. The sheriff of Houston County, Georgia, who is nearing 90, has served in his role since 1972 — a half-century. “It’s not uncommon for sheriffs who are elected to be in office for long periods of time because they understand the office and their constituents trust them,” said Royal, of the National Sheriffs’ Association.

The two candidates

Cogen, however, believes it is time for new leadership in the sheriff’s office. A Philadelphia native, he moved to Maryland in 1991 and worked as an EMT before starting classes at Goucher College, from which he graduated in 1997 with a degree in sociology, including an emphasis on criminal justice studies. He completed an internship with the city sheriff’s office, taking a job there after graduation. He rose through the ranks, becoming the first deputy to teach in the Baltimore police academy. Then he completed a fellowship with the National Police Foundation’s Institute for Integrity in Leadership and Professionalism in Policing. He also served as president of the sheriff’s deputies’ union, represented Baltimore in the Maryland Association of Sheriffs and was his agency’s representative to the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Within the department, he was promoted eight times and became the third-highest-ranking person in the office, working with the state legislature to authorize the sheriff’s office to handle domestic violence orders. Previously, about 10 percent of domestic violence orders were served, he said. After the change, more than three-quarters were.

Cogen retired from the sheriff’s office in November because he thought it would cause a distraction if he were campaigning against his longtime boss, he said. He serves as president of the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association and is the public safety chair of Federal Hill Main Street.

Anderson grew up in Baltimore and graduated from City College High School in 1965. He spent two years in the U.S. Air Force before graduating in 1978 from what is now Towson University with a degree in criminal justice. He joined the sheriff’s office in 1972 and also rapidly rose through the ranks. He was promoted to supervisor deputy sheriff in 1980, a role he held until Schaefer appointed him to finish out the term of the previous sheriff in 1989.

Anderson has handily beaten challengers over the years. Most recently, in 2018, he defeated his Democratic challenger, a high-ranking Baltimore Police Department official, with 60 percent of the vote in the primary. He swept the general election with 85 percent of the vote.

As for Cogen’s criticisms of the department’s use of technology, Anderson noted that he had hired Kim Morton, a former top aide to several former Baltimore mayors, to conduct an audit of the office and look greater efficiencies. “There isn’t a law enforcement agency in the country that doesn’t want new technology,” he said. “We have to persuade the city that we need to buy this new technology.”

(Morton’s hiring wasn’t without controversy, though; she had been accused in a lawsuit of forcing city officials to hire her boyfriend’s sister and then backdating employment records to grant her more than $100,000 in pay, as detailed by The Baltimore Brew. The city paid $155,00 to settle the suit.)

Cogen contends that better technology would help the sheriff’s office run more effectively. The office uses paper time sheets to track hours, photocopies to set schedules, and software that has been largely unchanged for decades. Information about warrants is stored in spreadsheets that are not cross-linked. That means deputies might be assigned to serve a domestic violence order at a particular address and not be aware that there is an outstanding bench warrant at the same address. Moreover, he said, the current system does not flag repeat violent offenders. And at any given time, there is a backlog of more than 1,000 warrants. A technology suite that could streamline all these processes would cost the department about $200,000, he said. Cogen noted that the department has previously had funding to hire a chief information officer, but Anderson did not hire one.

Baltimore City Sheriff John W. Anderson stands for a portrait in his office on Thursday, May 26.

Anderson said the backlog of unserved warrants is normal. Each day, warrants are served and new ones are issued. He believes that the current technology works fine for deputies. The paper time sheets merely supplement some glitchy city-issued software, he said. Department policy states that before heading out to serve a warrant, deputies should check several databases to determine whether the person has other outstanding warrants and see if they have had other brushes with the law, Anderson said.

Cogen is also advocating for reform to the eviction process. He contends that many landlords are illegally renting properties that don’t meet codes for city rentals. Deputies who are called to serve eviction notices at these properties are often not aware that the landlord is renting the property illegally. If elected, he would hire a rent fraud detective to sniff out and take action on such properties. He would also like to hire a social worker to help tenants forced to leave their homes. Deputies should be equipped with information about referral agencies and resources to help those who become homeless after an eviction, he said.

Anderson said deputies are instructed to alert a supervisor if they go to serve an eviction at a property that does not appear to be up to code. The office also partners with tenants’ rights organizations, he said.

While Anderson is in no rush to alter the sheriff’s office’s use of technology, he said he would carefully consider the recommendations of Morton, the City Hall insider conducting an audit of the office. “I always say change is my ally,” said Anderson. “You can always do better.”