A Q&A with Erie County Sheriff Candidate Chris Campanelli
With 25 years of experience, Campanelli has a fresh perspective for the office
Chris Campanelli was born and raised in Erie County. After graduating from Academy High School, Campanelli served in the Marine Corps for five years starting in 1991, being stationed in numerous countries throughout Southeast Asia.
For 25 years, he has served at the Erie County Sheriff's Office, rising to the rank of captain. In February of 2021, Campanelli announced his bid to move forward for the role of Erie County Sheriff.
In one of the few elected law enforcement positions, the Erie County Sheriff serves for a four-year term. The role is currently held by Campanelli's boss, John Loomis, who chose to retire after the end of his second term. Prior to Loomis, Bob Merski Sr. served as Erie County Sheriff for four terms and a 16-year run. Merski, Loomis, and Campanelli are all registered Democrats.
Like similar county departments, the sheriff's office looks different depending on where you're at. Pennsylvania's status as a commonwealth makes it distinct from neighboring out-of-state counties, while counties with varying populations and allocated resources see offices of varying capacities. In Erie County, our sheriff's office is an arm of the court versus doing patrol work like city or state police.
Nick Warren: Why are you running for Sheriff?
Chris Campanelli: I've been a public servant my whole adult life. It is what I was meant to do. It's my passion. I love where I live. I love the people that I provide services for, and I think it's the right move for me. I think as the sheriff, I would have the tools and the opportunity to actually make change for the better for the people of Erie County.
NW: A big part of your candidacy is the fact that you've served 25 years in the sheriff's office. Can you go into detail about how that's prepared you for the actual role?
CC: Well, I started in 1996. Right after I got out of the military and Act 120. I started as a per diem deputy, working full-time hours, but I basically ran the holding facility at the sheriff's office when we'd bring prisoners over for court hearings. From that in '98 I was hired full time. I was considered a civil deputy, so I did a lot of civil process, protection orders, sheriff's sales — things like that. When John Loomis became the sheriff, he promoted me to lieutenant. At that point, I was in charge of courthouse security, and I was the liaison to the court, so I handled all the court scheduling, and I was the liaison between the judges and the sheriff's office.
NW: Then after that, you were made captain, correct?
CC: I was then promoted to captain, which is the position I hold currently. That position directly supervises the criminal division of the sheriff's office, and oversees the daily operations of the office. Yeah, so I oversee the criminal civil division and the court division.
NW: Prior to this, I realized how little I understand about the sheriff's office, and I think a lot of people are probably in the same boat. Can you just tell me what are the main day-to-day and bigger picture duties of an elected sheriff in particular?
CC: It's more of an administrative position. But they oversee all of their command staff. They are the ones that are dealing with much more the administrative side of things, the budgets, the hiring process. I could go on and on. They do the sheriff sales for real estate property. Deputies handle personal property.
NW: How many deputies are in the Erie County Sheriff's Office?
CC: Our office has 40 full-time deputies, and I believe six clerical staff, and that includes our school resource officers (SROs).
NW: You mentioned John Loomis, the current sheriff. Can you talk about his endorsement and what that's meant for your campaign? And beyond that, also, Bob Merski Sr., the previous sheriff.
CC: Well, I'll start with Bob, because 25 years ago, I think Bob saw something in me just to hire me.
NW: He's the person who hired you?
CC: Yes, Bob is the sheriff that actually hired me full-time. I think he saw in me the things that he thought were right for that office. I worked for him as a civil deputy for 17 years. When John won the election and took over, he saw in me what I knew I had in there, and he liked the fact that I had strong leadership ability. I could make decisions. And I think a lot of that was my Marine Corps experience, as well as my years of experience in the office. That's why he put me into his command staff, and I think that's why he consequently made me the captain. Because he knew that I know what it takes to run an office and to make sure the daily operations run properly.
NW: Am I correct that Loomis endorsed you even prior to your campaign announcement?
CC: He has from day one.
I would say that I'm very lucky because not only did he take the chances on me, in furthering my career, he's blessed me in a way — by being able to expose me to the budgetary side of things, the hiring process, and unfortunately the firing process as well. It's all part of what the sheriff does in running the office. I've been very lucky that he's taken the time to show me these things. Because these are things that the average person — and the average deputy — will never know.
NW: How does the sheriff's office work with the police department and their organizational leadership?
CC: We've had, in the 25 years that I've been there, an outstanding relationship with all the local agencies in Erie County. The Erie Police Department probably more than the rest because we interact with them more, because our home base is the courthouse here in Downtown Erie. We have done many, many things with them. We've worked side by side with them on the Weed and Seed program and on the Gun Task Force. I believe that all the agencies in Erie County would have nothing but good things to say about the sheriff's office.
NW: And probably the Police Athletic League is involved there as well?
CC: Correct. Actually, the PAL's program in Erie County is the only one in the United States where the county sheriff and the city police chief are both involved in the same capacity. So we're very lucky for that.
NW: What is your vision for moving the sheriff's office forward?
CC: I believe we have to look into ways to streamline the operations of the office, we need to incorporate definitely more technology. We're using some computers that are 10 years old. We have to increase and improve in areas of training. The warrant service needs to be revamped to improve our ability to effectuate and arrest more criminals off the streets of Erie County, to provide a safer community for us, and to take some of the burden off of the taxpayer.
NW: Can you speak a little bit to the differences between being involved in the City of Erie versus the county?
CC: One thing to understand about the sheriff's office is that what we do for the most part — that the other agencies don't deal with — is civil process. Civil process is probably 40 percent of what our office does, and that would be going out and serving criminal complaints, protection orders, writs of execution, things of that nature. We do that throughout every part of the county, where police agencies have a very small jurisdiction. Erie police can only be in Erie city limits ... Just as an example, if an officer from Edinboro had to arrest somebody that he had a warrant on but it was in McKean, a deputy sheriff from Erie County could go with him and he could arrest them because we have jurisdiction throughout the whole county. So that's why that communication is so important.
NW: Can you tell us a little bit about how your time in the Marine Corps has shaped you in your career in law enforcement?
CC: I have to be honest, and anybody that knows me will tell you the same thing. I will say this every day of my life. The Marine Corps saved my life. There was a time where I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself. That weird age of 18 to 20, you don't know what to do. And I was hanging out with the people that were not the best. And the light switch went off in my head. I said "I have to do something." I joined the Marine Corps because I knew it was not going to be easy. From day one they instilled into all of us, I believe, discipline, leadership, and the ability to adapt to just about anything. And those are the three major things — other than pride. I will always be a proud Marine. Those three things I will take to the grave with me, but there are others too: honor, respect, and courage. I think the main things that I've utilized for my career would be leadership, discipline, and the ability to make decisions. Anybody that carries a firearm needs to know how to make decisions at a second's notice.
NW: Can you talk a little bit about the role of politics at the sheriff's office or lack thereof?
CC: Well, I can say this. I think, as the sheriff, and any deputy that works for the sheriff, politics should not come into play at any time. The services that our office provides, will always, under my watch, be provided to every person that's in need. I don't think that race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics have anything to do with the services our office provides. And it would not — under my watch.
NW: Obviously, the role of law enforcement in the last two years has radically changed. Black Lives Matter, defund the police movements. Everyone's talking about it and many, many people believe in it. How do you see that shaping the sheriff's office?
CC: I believe our office has always held the highest esteem and the highest integrity, or I wouldn't be part of it. That being said, there's always room for improvement. And with the environment in today's society, there's no question that our deputies need more training, whether it be communication sensitivity, they have to be able to communicate with the different multicultural parts of our community. From the African-American community, the LGBTQ+ population, to our up-and-coming population of New Americans. You have to be able to communicate because some of them can't understand. And I can speak to this firsthand, having been raised by an immigrant, not educated. He spoke the language, but we understood him a little more than most people. He would have a hard time. But you have to spend a little more time and they have to learn to do that. And I think a lot of that is not only in the hiring process — you have to get better candidates — but also the educational process. You have to train them. It's not difficult. It's having an open mind and treating everybody the same.
NW: What is the first thing that you want candidates to know about you?
CC: I would want them to know that I'm the only candidate in this race that is certified to enforce criminal and civil law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I'm the only one.
Chris Campanelli wished to thank his campaign team, his wife Molly Ashby-Campanelli. Michele Farrell, Jim Farrell, Dave Ashby, Gary Grack, Patty Palotas, Rodell Ashby, Tom Szelinski, and Tara Szelinski.
Nick Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org