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Foss: New sheriff inherits troubled department

Foss: New sheriff inherits troubled department

Foss: New sheriff inherits troubled department
Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato will leave office at the end of this month. He didn't seek re-election.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- Incoming Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith has his work cut out for him. 

He's inheriting a department that appears, from the outside, to be in some need of cleaning up. 

Since August, three sheriff's deputies have been arrested, raising questions about the overall quality of staff. Conditions at the County Jail have been the subject of numerous lawsuits. 

Another lawsuit, filed earlier this year, alleges that Kevin Collins, an 18-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, was fired in June as retaliation for making a workplace violence complaint against another sheriff's deputy. 

The suit accuses outgoing Sheriff Michael Amato of "a documented history of retaliating against any employees who cross him or his friends," raising the disturbing possibility that such retaliatory acts are par for the course.

The seemingly endless parade of bad headlines paints a troubling portrait of a dysfunctional agency where decent leadership is in short supply. 

There's a Keystone Cop quality to the behavior of the sheriff's deputies arrested this fall, but make no mistake: These deputies are facing serious accusations that, if true, render them unfit to serve.

One of them, 15-year department veteran Roberto Gracia, is accused of striking a teenage skateboarder with his personal vehicle while off-duty, arguing with him and driving away from the accident. Gracia allegedly told another deputy, Theresa Pingitore, about the accident, but neither reported it. 

Driving away from the scene of an accident and failing to report it are hardly capital crimes. 

But the public has a right to expect more from the men and woman sworn to uphold the law. 

In a separate incident that occurred in early November, Sheriff's Deputy Raymond Waldynski is accused of trespassing --  driving his patrol car into Fulton County and entering a residence without permission. State police have not revealed Waldynski's relationship to the victim, who lives at the residence. 

Missing details aside, it isn't too hard to imagine how terrifying this encounter might have been for the victim -- or why Waldynski's alleged lapse in judgment might disqualify him from serving as a deputy. 

Also this fall, a judge's ruling opened the possibility that former and current inmates of the Montgomery County Jail could join a class-action lawsuit against the county alleging they were not provided enough food while in custody. 

It's impossible to predict how this potential case will turn out, so I'll simply note that other lawsuits filed on behalf of Montgomery County jail inmates have proven costly. 

For example, in 2017 the county paid out $90,000 to two former inmates. 

One of the former inmates claimed he was assaulted more than 20 times by corrections officers, while the other claimed officers beat him while transporting him to court. 

If you add all the lawsuits filed on behalf of Montgomery County jail inmates together, the picture that emerges is of an institution in serious need of oversight and reform.

Will it get it? 

I don't know. 

But I do know that the incoming sheriff is inheriting a mess, at both the jail and the sheriff's office, and that it's going to take time and effort to clean it up. 

For the sake of the public, as well as those deputies and corrections officers who are just trying to do their jobs, I hope he succeeds. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

 

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