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Sheriff Sean Kilkenny at the AL DÍA newsroom. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News
Sheriff Sean Kilkenny at the AL DÍA newsroom. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News

The first Democrat to head the Sheriff’s Office in Montgomery County makes a bid for re-election

Sheriff Sean Kilkenny said that he wants to continue to push for greater diversity in the Sheriff’s Office, increase transparency, and more in what would be…

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Sean Kilkenny achieved history when he became the first Democrat to be elected to the Sheriff’s Office in Montgomery County in 2015.

A retired lieutenant colonel who served in the active duty U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve for more than two decades, Kilkenny is now going for his second term as sheriff and is up for reelection this November.

Kilkenny said that his main goal is to continue the promises his 2015 campaign was based upon: to create a sheriff’s office that would better reflect the rapidly changing population of Montgomery County, and introduce as much transparency as possible into the work that the office carries out.

In a conversation with AL DÍA on April 8, Kilkenny talked about workforce diversity, body cameras, gun control, and more.

The duties of the sheriff’s office

“People often confuse the sheriff’s office with the police, and a lot of people don’t understand the difference,” said Kilkenny, who went on to note that the sheriff’s office can influence public safety and law enforcement in very specific arenas.

Those duties consist of providing courthouse security, serving legal papers, transporting all prisoners within the county and, in the case of extraditions, as far as Georgia and Illinois. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office also provides bomb squad coverage for all of southeastern Pennsylvania, with the exception of Philadelphia, and works with Philadelphia’s Sheriff’s Office for other security concerns and major events, such as when Pope Francis visited the city in 2015, and the Eagles held their Superbowl parade last year.

Unlike in Philadelphia County, where the police department issues gun permits, in Montgomery County, the sheriff’s office is also charged with giving out gun permits, according to the background checks that are provided by the state.

On the frontline of domestic violence

The legal papers that the sheriff’s office serves throughout its jurisdiction includes Protection for Abuse papers, which protects individuals who are experiencing domestic abuse from continued exposure to their abusers.

Education for deputy sheriff officers concerning domestic abuse and how it affects those who are affected is essential, said Kilkenny, since their office is in many ways “on the front line” of domestic violence issues.

Kilkenny, whose wife works for one of the county’s domestic violence agencies, said that when individuals (most often women) come into the office to file a Protection for Abuse order, the sheriff’s office provides counseling, a free cell phone, and a deputy (some of whom are bilingual Spanish speakers) to escort the person through the process.

Sheriff Office’s relationship with ICE

Kilkenny said that the sheriff’s office does not share any information with Immigration Customs and Enforcement, but they allow ICE officers to enter the courthouse if they have a warrant.

“We’re not going to necessarily lend a helping hand, we’re not going to get in the way,” Kilkenny summarized.

Gun control

Kilkenny believes there should be a ban on assault weapons, and supports national legislation that would institute universal background checks for all people who seek to purchase a gun.

The sheriff said that though he owns a weapon and supports the second amendment, his interpretation of the amendment is that it “means...that people should have a personal firearm, or people should be able to hunt, but I do not support the proliferation of automatic weapons.”

Though legislation on gun control does not fall within the purview of the sheriff’s office, Kilkenny said that their role as the office which issues gun permits in Montgomery County is significant.

“I want to make sure that everyone is thoroughly vetted, before they receive a license to carry,” he said.

Body cameras

In Nov. 2018, Kilkenny led Montgomery County to become the first sheriff’s office in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to fully implement body cameras for all officers.

Kilkenny said that it was a key step towards fulfilling his campaign promise to implement greater transparency in the day-to-day functions of the sheriff’s office.

Body cameras, the sheriff said, allow for greater transparency because they help law enforcement solve crimes by providing a visual record of what happened, and provide the public with better access so that “they understand exactly what deputy sheriffs in Montgomery County are doing.” The cameras also allow deputies to be either cleared or convicted if they are accused of doing something wrong in their jobs.

Kilkenny said that he is not sure whether more sheriffs in other counties are planning to implement body cameras yet, partially due to the steep cost that it poses. The sheriff said that in their case, they were able to move forward thanks to a $80,000 grant from the Montgomery County Commissioners.

“Once people see how it works in Montgomery County, they can hopefully see the benefits and they can choose to do it in their own,” said Kilkenny, noting that though they have no quantitative metrics of how body cameras have assisted in solving cases or bringing about justice, they have already been able to turn over evidence from body cameras to the District Attorney’s Office in Montgomery County.

Reflecting Montgomery County

“I detest the fact that the Montgomery County’s Sheriff’s Office and anywhere else is an old boys’ network,” said Kilkenny.

According to the sheriff, when he was elected in 2015, 18 percent of his office were minorities and women. SInce assuming office, 38 percent of his hires have been minorities or women.

“Although it’s going to take some time to get full equity, we work very, very hard by reaching out to churches, the NAACP, to ACLAMO in Norristown and other organizations to try to encourage people who don’t particularly apply to law enforcement positions to apply and say it’s a great career path,” he noted, adding, “We work really, really hard to make sure our pool, as I say, looks like Montgomery County, which is increasingly diverse.

Having an officer who “looks like you,” he said, can help “break down barriers, at least initially,” with community members. Diversity is also important in the office itself.

“So not everybody is an Irish guy like me, or of Irish descent,” said Kilkenny. “It’s important that when I have a meeting, that people offer different perspectives, because they may look at an issue differently based on their cultural framework for how they grew up.”

The sheriff noted that the office currently has one administrative staff member who is bilingual in Spanish and English and three bilingual officers to work with the approximately x percent of Montgomery County who identifies as Hispanic.   

Election season

The sheriff said that, if reelected, he would focus on continuing to increase recruitment and diversity among officers in the sheriff’s office as a top priority.

He also wants to continue working with local law enforcement on community policing issues.

The sheriff’s office staffs DUI centers throughout the county, and Kilkenny hopes that by continuing to work with local law enforcement, they will be able to “get some of the burden off of the police, where they can process people, and make it easier.”

In terms of Philadelphia voters’ decision on the reelection of Sheriff Jewel Williams, who has faced allegations of sexual harrassment, he can only recommend that all who vote go to the polls informed about both of his challengers, which includes Rochelle Bilal and Malika Rahman, either of whom would be the first woman elected to the position, if they win.

“When I ran I try not to run on, ‘Hey I’m a Democrat, and I’m running against a Republican, please elect me,’” said Kilkenny, emphasizing that thorough knowledge of individual candidates’ platform is important, apart from simply the party they are affiliated with.

The fact that Kilkenny was the first Democrat ever elected to be Montgomery County Sheriff was, however, “a big deal,” he said.

“Now people see my record and hopefully they view that I’m doing a good job,” he said.

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