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City, county sheriff in turf tussle

New Bedford objects to patrols by deputies

NEW BEDFORD -- The sheriff who brought back chain gangs, forbade inmates from exercising, and charged them $5 a day rent has ridden into town with his deputies, his K-9s, and tough talk like a Western lawman kicking up dirt with his boots.

But Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson's order that his deputies help take back the city's streets from violent criminals by patrolling its most dangerous areas without municipal approval has set off anger among officials. The move has broken a tradition in Massachusetts, where sheriffs have historically had a limited role in law enforcement.

Yesterday, New Bedford Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. and his attorneys marched into Superior Court in Fall River and asked a judge to ban the sheriff's deputies from patrolling city streets, saying their actions exceeded the sheriff's authority and could endanger lives.

They judge declined the injuction request. Hodgson said his deputies were staying put; he said the city is turning into "a killing field."

The mayor and Bristol district attorney, both Democrats, say that the Republican sheriff's efforts are politically motivated and undermine their attempts to get a handle on the city's recent spike in violent crime.

Hodgson, who has made national headlines with his law enforcement techniques, said he had no other choice but to send in deputies after seeing little action by police following a law enforcement crime summit last month.

"I felt that, based on the escalating violence and the fact that there has been no movement of any kind on a strategic action plan to try and deal with the problem since our meeting four weeks ago," it was time to send deputies into the city, Hodgson said.

The sheriff's deputies have been met on the streets with icy stares from New Bedford police officers and praise from the city's residents, who say the open-air drug markets, especially near Acushnet Avenue and in the South End, have made them fearful of walking their own streets.

New Bedford has suffered a record nine homicides this year. The city has seen an increase in the number of drive-by shootings and is facing an influx of Boston gang members, who are violently pushing out local gang members and drug dealers, Hodgson said.

Last weekend, there were a number of gunfights, including one on Brock Avenue in which a 12-year-old girl had to dive for cover to avoid bullets, he said.

He dispatched two K-9 patrols and two undercover officers into what he called "the troubled areas of the city."

In Massachusetts, sheriffs' primary responsibility is running county jails.

Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh called New Bedford's police force "beleaguered" -- the mayor asked for and received the chief's resignation last month -- and in need of assistance. But he said Hodgson has made no effort to coordinate with city police and has a track record of legal failures when investigating crimes inside his own facilities.

Walsh also said that arrests made by the sheriff's deputies, who typically serve warrants and act as guards at the county jail, would be subject to challenges in court.

"You can't have the guy who was serving mashed potatoes to inmates last week calling himself a drug detective this week," Walsh said.

Hodgson bristled at Walsh's arguments, saying a deputy assigned to the DA's drug task force has made numerous arrests.

Walsh said Hodgson's plan to deploy deputies could compromise ongoing investigations and jeopardize the safety of city, state, and federal law enforcement officials.

"If we are going to pop off a big guy and a sheriff's cruiser shows up, and guns come, someone could get hurt," Walsh said. "It could put lives in jeopardy."

But Hodgson said he is willing to coordinate his efforts with the city's -- the mayor has called for a meeting today -- and he said he could not see the disadvantage of having extra eyes on the streets to disrupt drug sales, prevent drive-by shootings, and give residents a sense of control.

Furthermore, Hodgson said the deputies he is sending into New Bedford are graduates of the same criminal justice training programs that reserve police officers must complete, though he acknowledged his deputies do not attend a longer police training academy that all municipal police officers must attend.

But Walsh said Hodgson's deputies do not have adequate training to handle criminal investigations in the city. For proof, he pointed to a recent a drug case against a corrections officer that was dismissed by a judge because the deputies involved did not read a suspect her Miranda rights. Instead, they drove her around in a prisoner transport van for six hours, seeking a confession. They got it, Walsh said, but the court threw it out for constitutional violations. "It was a disaster," he said.

Hodgson said he will run for reelection next year for another six-year term but is not being driven by politics. "I'm very committed to working with the chief and the mayor," Hodgson said. "But we just can't have meetings."

However, the mayor and an adviser said Hodgson was thinking more about politics. They pointed out that Hodgson let reporters know about his move before notifying city officials.

"What has he done?" said former city solicitor and mayoral advisor George Leontire. "He put two patrol cars in the street -- we have 270 officers -- and then he tells the public he's riding in to save you. It's all political."

This article was written by Michael Rosenwald of the Globe staff.

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