No Time to Replace Sheriff Cummings

Ed note: To my off-Cape and out-of-state readers this Cape Cod Times op-ed is about a Barnstable County campaign. The application for a criminal complaint, which I predicted would not go far, was denied this morning.

Thomas Johnson of Harwich Port includes a fundamental contradiction in his “My View” piece on July 9, “Consider Azzato to replace longtime sheriff.” He says “This is not about what political party the person being considered is from” even as Johnson refers to Sheriff James Cummings’ management style as “time-worn Republican top-down.” Indeed, Cummings’ main offense seems to be that he is a Republican with 18 years successful experience in the job.

Beyond that, according to Johnson, Cummings has not inserted extra layers of management, such as “town meeting examinations.” He also “has no oversight committee, no citizen advisory committee nor any other public examination of his spending.” This completely fails to grasp the nature of the office itself.

The sheriff’s office is not a local town agency. The office, while limited to the county in its geographical jurisdiction and electorate, is an office of state government. The state Legislature and governor control its budget annually. Spending is audited by state agencies. Training is controlled by Massachusetts state regulations and audited by outside agencies.

Sheriff Cummings provides many useful support services to the police departments on Cape Cod, but his main function is the operation of the Barnstable County Jail and House of Correction. In this role he has been audited by the American Correctional Association and has received a 100 percent rating. He is also audited by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and received outstanding ratings.

There is one facet of Sheriff Cummings management with which I am personally familiar. While politicians in Boston and Washington, D.C., bemoaned the opiate problem and wondered what to do about it, Cummings acted. He established the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) Program for willing addicted prisoners. The program includes both drug counselors and specially trained correctional officers. The recidivism rate for prisoners who complete the program is about 20 percent compared to 62 percent among former prisoners nationally. The program is nationally praised and is recognized by the Department of Justice as one of only six mentoring sites in the United States.

It is a great satisfaction for a judge to be able to give a defendant a sentence reflecting his crime but tailored with a recommendation, requested by the defendant, for his participation in the RSAT Program, which might eliminate his addiction. For that alone Cummings deserves re-election.

What Johnson’s candidate, Randy Azzato, has displayed since his recent entry into political life is bad judgment. According to a Cape Cod Times report, Azzato posted on his public campaign Facebook page a press release stating that 60 employees of the sheriff’s office have not received training from police academies for town police officers.

As Cummings was on vacation, his top assistant, Special Sheriff Jeffrey Perry, wrote a lengthy rebuttal. That reply pointed out that correctional officers required separate training specified by state regulations and audited by the state. Perry posted his statement as a comment on Azzato’s public campaign Facebook page. The two men had some testy exchanges on the Facebook page. Perry, according to his radio interview, concluded with a reference to Azzato’s website resume, saying “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Late that night Azzato called the Falmouth police to report Perry for criminal harassment. A police cruiser went to Azzato’s house at 12:15 a.m. (Perry reported on a local radio show that Azzato also called the police in Sandwich where Perry lives.) The police officer had read the Facebook exchange and considered it heated political discussion and declined any action.

After involving two police departments in the middle of the night, Azzato went to the Falmouth District Court and applied for the issuance of a criminal complaint for criminal harassment. Among other things that charge requires proof that the defendant committed acts which “would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress” and which “did seriously alarm that person.” It doesn’t seem like anything we’ve heard so far would “seriously alarm” a school crossing guard, let alone a prospective sheriff.

Mr. Azzato would be well advised to take the advice of a great Democratic president, Harry S. Truman: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Brian R. Merrick of West Barnstable is retired first justice of the Orleans District Court.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Conrad J Bletzer says:

    Nice column Brian. Thanks for standing up,for a public official who is doing a good job.

    Conrad J Bletzer 90 Cliffside Drive Plymouth, MA 02360



  2. G. Mulligan says:

    McLaughlin entered the popular culture and gained fame and ratings when he was hilariously spoofed on SNL. You describe well the politics but understate his comedic appeal. Like you, I haven’t seen the show in years but was aghast at his most recent photograph.


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