Editorial: Westmoreland sheriff’s department has tarnished reputation

October 4, 2018

Westmoreland County Courthouse

A sheriff’s deputy is usually on hand for a guilty verdict.

A deputy will probably serve someone notice of charges or a lawsuit. A deputy will maintain order in the courthouse or escort people to the jail.

But in Westmoreland County lately, there have been too many people from the sheriff’s department involved in controversies, and they all seem to be clustered at the top of the heap.

On Tuesday, Chief Deputy Sheriff Patricia Fritz was found guilty of summary harassment. That’s not a huge deal for most people. A summary offense is the equivalent of a traffic ticket or a noise complaint. On it’s own, it gets a raised eyebrow and a shrug.

But Fritz is the second in comand at the Westmoreland sheriff’s department. OK, fine, even law enforcement officials have bad days. But Fritz’s bad day was at work, when she got into a scuffle in August with the union representative for the sheriff’s deputies, Cpl. Steve Felder.

Fritz was suspended for two weeks. So was Felder.

So just two people? Well, OK. But wait, there’s more.

The third in command just had charges dropped against him. Capt. Travis Day was charged with criminal harassment in Centre County after an incident that ended in him being kicked out of a required training program at Penn State. But hey, charges were dropped, right? Actually, university police say the situation is not over and an investigation continues.

He’s on an unpaid suspension.

OK, three people being suspended doesn’t look good. But at least there are no serious charges yet.

And that’s where we get to Sheriff Jonathan Held.

The man in charge is waiting for his day in court on charges of public corruption. Held denies those charges, but the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office says he had staff members working on projects for his campaign, including soliciting donations for his annual fundraising event.

The county just settled an $85,000 racial discrimination suit with Held’s department last week. Three other suits have been filed against the department this year, and it has been named in 11 since he took office in 2012. Seven have been settled. With settlements and legal fees, costs have topped $300,000.

Taken individually, each suspension or charge or suit might be easily overlooked. It was just a disagreement. It was a mistake. It was a one-time thing.

But the real problem comes with a pattern. When multiple people are having issues, and the department has multiple problems, it makes it harder to just dismiss things. It prompts questions. It raises concerns.

That’s dangerous, because the sheriff’s department does important work, and the deputies -- and the public -- can face real threats if people don’t trust them. Half the reason for the shiny badge and the uniform is to easily identify the good guys.

That’s harder to do when the badge is tarnished.

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