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Essex sheriff contest turns more heated

Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. says he has brought efficiency and professionalism to the ranks of his agency.

William F. Murley, an Essex County correctional officer who is challenging Cousins in the Nov. 2 election, contends that the sheriff has mismanaged the department.

Cousins, a Newburyport Republican, and Murley, a Salem Democrat, are delivering those sharply contrasting views of Cousins's record as their increasingly heated race heads toward a finale.

The Essex County sheriff's office is responsible for the custody of pretrial and sentenced prisoners in Essex County. It operates the Essex County Correctional Center in Middleton, the Essex County Correctional Alternative Center in Lawrence, and the Women in Transition facility in Salisbury.

It is also responsible for prisoners who live at home with electronic monitors and operates three community correctional centers that provide services and drug testing to people on parole, probation, and electronic monitoring. And it runs an office that serves civil papers.

Cousins, 46, is a former Newburyport city councilor and state representative. He was appointed sheriff by Governor William F. Weld in 1996 to complete the term of Salem Democrat Charles Reardon, who resigned after pleading guilty to a federal charge of accepting an illegal gratuity. Cousins went on to win a six-year term in 1998.

Cousins points to the progress he said the agency has made since he took over.

''I took over a department that was very troubled," he said, ''a department that didn't have standards, didn't have professionalism. We've changed that. . . . Things are headed in the right direction."

As evidence, he pointed to the accreditation the Middleton facility was awarded by a national organization. He said he also has raised hiring standards and pay for correctional officers and opened the facility for female inmates and the three community correctional centers.

Murley, 38, has been a correctional officer since 1993. For the past six years, he has been a drill instructor at the inmate boot camp at the Correctional Alternative Center.

He said Cousins's record is one of ''gross mismanagement."

For example, Murley contended that Cousins has increased the ranks of managers while cutting the number of correctional officers working on cell blocks by 25 percent. He said that as a direct result of those cuts, ''assaults on officers are at an all-time high."

Cousins strongly disputed those claims. He said the number of employees in the department has fallen from 590 to 553 over the past three years, but that the reductions have come from managers who took early retirement. He said the number of correctional officers has not fallen and that there has been no reduction in the level of staffing on the cell blocks.

Murley also asserted that officer training has been cut. Mandated to receive 40 hours of annual training, officers now receive 16 hours and a written test with one answer for each question, he said.

Cousins denied that training has been cut and said the department meets industry standards for training and education. He also denied that there has been a high number of assaults on officers, noting there are 10 employees out on workers' compensation now, only two as a result of inmate assaults.

Another issue for Murley is what he contends is the department's lax security policies. He said, for instance, there is on average only one officer assigned to patrol outside the Middleton facility, and that there have been more than 40 escapes in about three years from the Lawrence facility and outside work details.

Cousins rejected those criticisms, saying the number of escapes has been much lower (eight in 2003 and six in 2004). He would not comment on security policies at the Middleton facility, but said state and federal agencies and accreditors reviewed them and found no issue with them.

Murley also has made allegations about the sheriff's ethics, including that he accepts contributions from employees and vendors. Murley claimed there is an ''unwritten rule" within the department that donating to the sheriff's campaign is necessary to receive a promotion.

Cousins responded that he does not ''blanketly solicit" donations from employees. ''Some choose to donate and that's their right," he said. ''Some don't and we don't bother anyone" who does not. He strongly denied any connection between donations and promotions, saying promotions are done through a structured process that includes written exams. He said vendors who donate to his campaign receive ''no quid pro."

Cousins claimed that Murley himself had solicited campaign donations from members of the Essex County Correctional Officers Association. The association is supporting Murley, a member, in the race.

Murley said he had sent a letter to association members inviting them to a fund-raiser. But he observed, ''I'm not the sheriff right now." He said ''The first thing I'd do as sheriff is not take any money from anybody who works for the department . . . or anybody that has a contract with the department."

Murley also questioned the sheriff's expansion of community programs for inmates when ''all cities and towns in the county have been cut back." He said he would scale back some of the programs at the community correctional centers and avoid ''duplicating services already offered in the communities."

Cousins said the centers are run in collaboration with the state parole and probation departments and do not come out of his budget. He said they are an important tool in keeping people from reoffending.

''He's said nothing positive in this race," Cousins said of Murley. ''All he's done is choose to be negative."

''I'm sure he feels I'm being negative, because I am pointing out the errors he has made as sheriff," Murley responded.

Cousins said he has lived up to the promise he made in his 1998 campaign to provide strong management and a vision for the department.

''I talk to people on the street and they are proud of what is happening" with the department, he said.

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