Headlines across the nation put a favorable spotlight on Cecil County in the autumn of 1970, following the local election. A member of the Du Pont family, Samuel Francis du Pont, had become sheriff and curious journalist from some of the nation’s largest dailies sensed that there was a unique story here.
He certainly wasn’t after the $125-a-week salary or the free room and board in living quarters on the 2nd floor of 19th century jail. Samuel Francis du Pont, great-great grandson of Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, the founder of the family chemical empire, preferred to live at his spacious estate, Hexton, overlooking the Sassafras River.
Sam started in policing in the late 1960s, a period characterized by much civil unrest across the nation. A presidential commission investigating the riots had determined that law enforcement should be more professional and to implement the reforms in the Old Line State, the Maryland Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was created. Governor Spiro T. Agnew appointed him to the agency charged with implementing uniform training standards, supporting college programs in criminal justice, and providing better equipment in 1968.
To get some practical experience, he joined the Elkton Police Department. Working as a K-9 officer, providing his own German Shepherd and a specially equipped station wagon, he started patrolling the streets of the county seat that year. He also attended the Maryland Police Academy, becoming one of two locally certified officers to graduate from the new program.
A formally trained local officer was something of a rarity at that time. Rookies were typically given a stick, handcuffs, badge, and gun and told to hit the road.
Moving to the sheriff’s department in May of 1969, he became one of eight men policing the county and taking care of the other duties, such as jail and court security. But this deputy differed from the other men in two special ways, the Baltimore Sun noted. “He’s the only one who works with a police dog. Sam, his year old station wagon, and a 4-1/2-year-old German shepherd made up the K-9 corps for the sheriff’s force. The other difference is that he is the only deputy who catches night shift every work day. Police dogs are most effective at night so the K-9 corps is on hand when it is needed most.”
Seeing firsthand the need to provide leadership and strengthen law enforcement locally, he campaigned for the top job in 1970. (One of the issues centered around where the sheriff was going to reside.) The Republican defeated former sheriff and state trooper Juicy Kaplan in an area where Democrats held a 2 to 1 majority.
“Perhaps I had a little different approach. . . ,” he explained to the Washington Post. We needed “a more professional approach and so we won better salaries” for the deputies and improved jail conditions. The inmates appreciated their new keeper. One man serving time for assaulting his wife told the Washington post. “He’s just like another guy. Most of the prisoners like him. He’s fair.”
Du Pont didn’t like to talk about his family history, reporters often observed, preferring instead to discuss what he was doing to protect and serve the citizens. The most serious problem was living down his name, the New York Times thought. Many county residents feared that the Wilmington Du Ponts were trying to take over. Others worried that he was going to use the office as a platform to climb higher in politics. “But he didn’t want to write laws like his cousin (Rep. Pierre du Pont).”
He implemented critically needed enhancements for county law enforcement. Hiring standards and training were strengthened, as he wrangled a pay raise of from $600 to $1,400 for the men, with a salary topping out at $8,300. Circuit Court Judge J. Albert Rooney, noted that relation with the court had improved markedly, remarking that the officers that came before the bench were better qualified and more prepared. Staffing was increased and improvements were made in the 19th century jail.
No du Pont had considered this line of work before, according to the Washington Post. They had enacted laws as U.S. Senators, administered them as commissioners of various agencies, interpreted them as judges, but this wasn’t for Sam. “I never really wanted a desk job. Never had a lot of desire to go with the company. I’m proud of my heritage, but it’s not my bag,” he told the reporter.
Sheriff du Pont served the citizens of Cecil County during a period when the criminal justice system had to evolve to deal with the challenges of a troubled decade, the 1960s. He worked hard fighting crime and fighting for a few thousand more dollars at budget time. He could have spent leisure time on his estate on the Sassafras River, flown his plane, piloted his tug and other boats, worked with thoroughbred horses, or looked after business in about anyway he wanted.
Instead he preferred to be a public servant, getting his start pulling lonely graveyard shift with his K-9 partner. As the lights when down in Cecil County, they started their workday, prowling the outlying country roads, from Bald Friar and the Lancaster County Line to Crystal Beach and the Sassafras River, while searching for trouble. Along the way he worked his way up to the top cop’s job.
He was directly responsible for bringing county policing into the modern era as he professionalized the work.