Why Do We Even Have a Sheriff’s Office in the First Place?

After promising to eliminate scandals only to find herself embroiled in them, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal should resign — and the entire office should be eliminated.

rochelle bilal sheriff's office sheriff

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal. Photo courtesy of Bilal’s campaign

In public service, there are officials who make simple mistakes — errors that can be corrected, and after they are, we move on. Example: when former mayor Michael Nutter tried to close 11 public library branches, then apologized. But then there are officials who continually make bad decisions that speak to a larger problem — such as recently resigned city commerce director Michael Rashid, who was accused of anti-Semitism and staff abuse.

You give grace to the former; you sever ties with the latter.

Since her election in 2019, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal has brought more shame and disgrace to her office than the reform she promised. Bilal, who became the first woman in the city to hold the position, ran a campaign that vowed to end “scandal after scandal after scandal” and “remove the dark cloud” that had defined the Sheriff’s Office for more than a decade. In a heated three-candidate primary that saw her go up against an embattled incumbent who was hit with sexual harassment allegations (which he’s denied), Bilal appeared to be the change we were waiting for, given her background calling out law enforcement for retaliation, corruption and discrimination.

Now, her office is being accused of similar transgressions, and it’s costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last week, it was confirmed that Bilal had recently hired a disgraced former cop, who was once fired for alleged sexual assault, as her deputy chief. Bilal is no stranger to calling for police reform, so it was disheartening to find out she was giving a $100,000 salary to Michael Paige, a man ordered by a jury in 2012 to pay his accuser $165,000 for “invasions of (his victim’s) bodily integrity.” To make matters worse, Bilal has yet to address the public about her decision to hire Paige; only her spokesperson confirmed his employment to the press.

This lack of accountability and transparency is hard to chalk up to a simple mistake when other concerns about Bilal’s management have clouded her tenure. Last year, the city had to settle a case for $500,000, without admitting any liability, that involved Bilal’s former chief financial officer accusing her of wrongful termination and retaliation after he claimed to have raised issues with her “slush fund” spending. It also doesn’t help that Bilal and the city are being sued in federal court by two other former employees of the Sheriff’s Office who have accused her of similar retaliatory and corrupt behavior.

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal should resign, and we need to look hard at why this office even exists. What is so special about the duties of the Sheriff’s Office — which include providing safety to all Philadelphia courtrooms and managing all First Judicial Court-ordered foreclosures of property — that it needs an independently elected head? The mayor could easily appoint someone to this role, just as the mayor does for commerce director, fire chief, and other critical posts. Keeping the Sheriff’s Office intact creates a fiefdom, as evidenced by the actions of former sheriffs Jewell Williams and John Green.

It’s apparent from Bilal’s poor leadership that she hasn’t learned from the bad dealings of her predecessors — one of whom, Williams, cost the city and state thousands in sexual harassment lawsuit settlements, and another, Green, who pleaded guilty to accepting $675,000 in bribes. Mismanagement and questionable decision-making at the Sheriff’s Office has proven to be chronic and institutional.

In 2008, Mayor Nutter proposed moving the row offices (City Commissioner, Register of Wills, Sheriff’s Office, and Clerk of Quarter Sessions) into other city agencies. The following year, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority supported the move, with data showing that the city could save $13 million to $15 million per year by doing so while gaining more transparency and efficiency. That’s millions of dollars the poorest big city in America could use to improve its schools, address poverty and gun violence, and/or enhance our parks and recreation centers. But City Council eliminated only the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, in 2010, arguably because it was the sole row office that could be struck without a City Charter change.

It’s time for City Council to revisit abolishing row offices — this time with a focus on the Sheriff’s Office (for now) — by voting to put the decision in voters’ hands soon. Bilal’s resignation is an immediate and necessary change, but eliminating the office altogether would be a lasting one.