Harford sheriff discusses initiatives to improve police-community relations in HCC’s ‘Uncomfortable Conversation’ forum

In this screen capture, James Karmel, a Harford Community College history professor and leader of the college's Harford Civil Rights Project, leads a Microsoft Teams meeting titled “Uncomfortable Conversation” about civil rights and race relations.
In this screen capture, James Karmel, a Harford Community College history professor and leader of the college's Harford Civil Rights Project, leads a Microsoft Teams meeting titled “Uncomfortable Conversation” about civil rights and race relations. (Screen capture)

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office, during the nearly six-year tenure of Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, has worked to improve transparency, modernize its use-of-force and discipline policies and increase racial diversity within the ranks.

Such initiatives were put in place during Gahler’s first term, which started in late 2014, not because of public pressure or a “national tragedy” — such as the death of an unarmed Black person while in police custody — but “because they are the right thing to do,” the sheriff said during the recent community event, “An Uncomfortable Conversation: National Events with Local Implications Concerning Race, Equity, and Justice.”


The forum and panel discussion, broadcast online via Microsoft Teams, happened last Thursday and was hosted by the Harford Civil Rights Project at Harford Community College. A recording of the event is available online.

“They are the educated evolution of policing,” Gahler, speaking in a pre-recorded video message, said of his agency’s initiatives. “We will continue to look at data and best practices — again, not because of tragedy but because of our commitment to Harford County.”


The “Uncomfortable Conversation” event was spurred by national events, however, specifically the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 and the national, even global, outrage that followed in the form of mass protests.

James Karmel, project director for the Harford Civil Rights Project and a history professor at HCC, noted the protests, as well as legislative initiatives and “newfound mass support” for the Black Lives Matter movement that have come about following Floyd’s death.

“We have titled tonight’s event as ‘An Uncomfortable Conversation,‘” Karmel said. “We hope that it really isn’t too uncomfortable, that we can actually have an event to bring people together, at some level, to work towards a better nation, state and community.”

Gahler, as well as Erik Robey, head of legislative and community affairs, and Maj. Jack Simpson of the Sheriff’s Office participated the forum, along with a number of people from the college, the faith community, authors, activists for racial justice and veterans of the 20th Century civil rights movement.

“Structural, systemic inequality and racism manifest, not only in law enforcement, but in housing, employment, health care, education and other segments in our society,” said Sharoll Love, director of the Soar2Success program at HCC and a member of the civil rights project team.

“Many Americans, particularly white Americans, seem, at a minimum, perplexed and at times angry about the tensions that exist between Black Americans and law enforcement,” Love continued.

She introduced a video clip of author and educator Tim Wise speaking about the fractured relationship between the Black community and law enforcement — which dates to the days of slavery — at San Jose City College in 2017.

“If you don’t understand the history of law enforcement misconduct in Black space, in Black communities, Black Lives Matter won’t make any sense to you,” Wise says in the clip.

Wise stresses that he is “not talking about every damn cop” or about “good cops and bad cops, good people and bad people.”

“I’m talking about a history, and a culture, of law enforcement that has simply not treated Black and brown peoples the same as white folks,” he says, noting that patrol units assigned to catch escaped slaves were “the first iteration of law enforcement on this land” in the U.S.

Karmel provided a historical overview of race relations in Harford County, noting that there was a mix of free and enslaved people of color living in Harford prior to the Civil War. The area was a significant node along the Underground Railroad — a network of people who helped the enslaved escape the South to freedom in the North — because of its locations where escapees could cross the Susquehanna River, according to Karmel.

Racial segregation was strict in Harford County in the late 1800s and in the first half of the 20th Century, and Black people formed their own communities around local churches and schools. Four lynchings were documented between 1867 and 1904, and negative attitudes toward African Americans were evident as recently as the 1960s, as Karmel showed a newspaper ad from 1960 for a minstrel show at Aberdeen High School.


Harford played a significant role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, with freedom riders heading through the county along Route 40, desegregation of public schools in 1965 and many initiatives by the local chapter of the NAACP for equal opportunity in employment and housing.

A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore-based attorney whose family won a battle in federal court so he could integrate Aberdeen High School in the early 1960s, talked about his extensive legal career that has included civil rights cases, criminal cases and cases involving police brutality.

Recent events, such as protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit minority communities especially hard, have brought America’s many racial issues to the forefront of public awareness.

“It’s very exciting to see these things develop and to wait to see if America is going to be able to answer the question [of race] and whether or not this country is a country of equality for all Americans,” Petit said.

Lunden Rowlett, an HCC student who took an African American history course taught by Karmel and completed research for a Civil Rights Project assignment, talked about the “rich and deep history” of racial issues in Harford, noting how that history is “very complex in nature.”

Rowlett recalled, as a high school student, having her claims of racism being dismissed, and later seeing her former classmates post black squares on their social media feeds in protest of Floyd’s death, “as if they didn’t go on about how racism is dead and it isn’t real.”

“I do want to promote hope and promote faith in a better community, but the only way to do that is by having the bravery to recognize your own past,” she said.

A brief question-and-answer period followed the panel discussion, and most questions pertained to the Sheriff’s Office.


Robey fielded a question on diversity among agency personnel, noting that about 3 percent of law enforcement deputies were black when Gahler became sheriff in 2014. The office has since “put a full court press in place” to increase diversity, he said.

“We’re very optimistic in the progress that we’re making, but we’re still not happy where we are with our diversity numbers, and we certainly would use anybody’s help and input to help us get there,” Robey said.

Simpson echoed Gahler’s earlier comments about how transgressions such as racial discrimination or lying will result in termination from the Sheriff’s Office.

“We have no tolerance for criminal acts,” he said, noting that deputies have been prosecuted for misconduct in situations where there is probable cause to do so.

“We’re always open to new and better ways of policing the community,” Robey said.

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