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Editorial -- Sheriff Coon

His was a long and distinguished public career

Monday, October 26, 1998

It's unfortunate that the latter-day headlines made by Allegheny County Sheriff Eugene Coon were what they were. They masked a solid career of public service.

The former sheriff died last Wednesday at age 69, having left his mark on county law enforcement, county politics and the need for humanity in county government. He served at a time when other giants walked Grant Street - Tom Foerster, Dick Caliguiri, Leonard Staisey, Pete Flaherty -- and he fit right in.

As county sheriff, he was popular enough and professional enough to be elected seven times. Running a law-enforcement arm of the court that served subpoenas, transported prisoners and kept order in the courthouse, Mr. Coon brought modern labor law, the civil service system and up-to-date training to the department.

He gained a reputation for compassion and coolheadedness from two events in the 1980s that followed the dismantling of the Pittsburgh steel industry. He declined to go forward with sheriff's sales of homes threatened with mortgage foreclosures. Sheriff Coon said the sales exploited law-abiding people who had built equity in their homes and communities, only to lose jobs through no fault of their own.

When members of a group protesting the area's economic dislocation barricaded itself in a Clairton church, Sheriff Coon patiently waited them out and arrested them, rather than storm the building with a court order and turn the group into folk heroes.

As county chairman of the Democratic Party, he was among the leaders who enacted reforms giving elected committee members, instead of the party elite, the power to choose candidates for nomination.

These are the credits, mostly achieved in the public eye, that shouldn't be dimmed by the sheriff's later appearances in the news. The unfortunate pedestrian accident that cost him his leg in 1988. The alcohol abuse that led to his firing rifle shots toward a neighbor's party in 1994 - because of noise being made while he was taking a nap.

His public career was too long - 28 years as sheriff alone - and too admired to be tainted by that. Party loyalist, county servant and good cop - Eugene Coon was all of these.

For this he deserves the public's thanks.

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