He fell unwittingly into the job last fall and now Democratic frontrunner William P. Mullen is reluctantly campaigning to retain his post as Allegheny County sheriff.
"I'm in the twilight of my career," said the sheriff who has no official stance on whether the position should be an elected one.
He's running, he says, to finish the work he began when former Sheriff Pete DeFazio hired him "to right the ship" after three top aides were convicted for corruption. The man who hired him is under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet after pleading guilty in November to a federal charge linked to the old culture of macing, or pressuring employees to fund election campaigns.
Mr. Mullen said, "I have made some changes. I would like to eliminate corruption and the patronage politics that have existed for years and restore the credibility of the sheriff's office."
That's a tall order, and one his challengers say they don't think Mr. Mullen can fill.
Two other Democrats with law enforcement backgrounds are vying for the Democratic nomination to the post in next month's primary election. Damon J. Brown, a former rank-and-file city officer, works for a private contractor training police in war-torn regions. Anthony Costa is a retired Swissvale police lieutenant with 27 years of experience.
After six months as second-in-command, the incumbent was thrust into the role of sheriff when his 57-year-old boss announced he planned to retire.
Mr. Mullen took the oath of office a day after his 60th birthday. Two months later, he suffered what he described as a near-fatal heart attack while playing basketball. He resumed office after less than two months.
Mr. Mullen was born in Homewood and lived in Overbrook and Carrick before settling in Banksville. He studied political science at the University of Dayton. A beat cop's son, he entered the city police academy several weeks after graduation and served on the city force for 37 years in the burglary, robbery, narcotics, rape and homicide units. He became deputy chief, under Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., in 2004.
He is married and has two grown sons, one of whom has served a sheriff's deputy for the county since 1999.
He views it as a strength that he has helped lead two departments during periods of external scrutiny: when the city police entered into the country's first consent decree with the Department of Justice in 1997 and when he joined the sheriff's office a year ago following a spate of the federal corruption convictions.
In one year, he has reorganized shifts and cut $500,000 from overtime spending. He reduced the fleet and added a wheelchair-accessible van. He also re-organized the chain of command so top officials stopped doing the work of deputies.
He said he also stopped taking calls from chiefs of police and politicians asking for favors. In his first memo to staff, he wrote that the office would no longer solicit political donations from deputies.
He agreed with criticism that security in the city and county courts is not as good as it should be.
Having just returned from a two-year stint training police officials in Afghanistan, candidate Brown says he would bring an international perspective to the job.
While abroad, he followed reports about the upheaval in the sheriff's office online and began to develop a plan to improve training, security, minority recruitment and data tracking.
Compared with Mr. Mullen, Mr. Brown says he is more of "a humanitarian."
"I know his track record. I've worked for him. He wants to discipline more. I don't feel that that's how you get the most from a police department. They're down there shaking in their boots. That's his trademark; he's a disciplinarian."
Mr. Brown, 45, was born in Point Breeze and lives in Greenfield. He has three teenage children. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in administration of justice, he served with the Pitt police for seven years. He was a city patrolman and a plainclothes officer on the gang unit for several years.
He also worked as a private bodyguard before he began training national police overseas, including stints in Iraq, Kosovo, Russia, Bulgaria, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Brown's former wife, Andrea James-Brown, sought protection from abuse orders against him after alleging that he punched and slapped her, broke her finger, injured her jaw and threatened to "put a bullet in my head," according to court papers. The couple began divorce and custody proceedings for their two children shortly thereafter. Mr. Brown on Friday denied the allegations of violence and verbal abuse.
Court records also show that the Allegheny County district attorney dismissed a simple assault charge filed against Mr. Brown on Feb. 14, 1999. He was accused of punching another man; Mr. Brown agreed to pay $2,800 in restitution. He said Friday he acted in self-defense.
Mr. Mullen's other challenger for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Costa, 55, also hopes to reform the office. He said he would review contract violations with regard to overtime.
After speaking with some deputies, he said he believes the sheriff has created "a hostile work environment and they're afraid to say anything because they're afraid of retaliation."
The brother of Magisterial District Judge Ronald Costa Sr. and cousin for former chief Dom Costa, Mr. Costa has lived in East Liberty and Bloomfield and now lives in Swissvale. He earned a degree in criminal justice from Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce campus.
He retired from police work several years after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. She died last year and he began working in hospice care. He has three grown children and is raising his 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
As sheriff, he said, "My No. 1 priority would be officer safety. If you're sending one man out where you would ordinarily send two, it could be a life-or-death situation."
He said he doubts Mr. Mullen's potential because "DeFazio was convicted and he handpicked his successor."
Republican Edward J. Kress is uncontested. The 35-year-old Shaler attorney and former county councilman said he would focus on changing the way the office handles foreclosures and curtail sheriff sales which he said hurt elderly homeowners.
"One reason I'm running is to help people from losing their homes. The sales don't help the lender and they don't help the homeowner or the community."
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 2, 2007) This story as originally published April 30, 2007 about the campaign for Allegheny County sheriff gave an incorrect home neighborhood for candidate and current Sheriff William P. Mullen. He lives in Banksville.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.