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Harford NAACP, other groups recommend police reforms to improve public trust

Harford County’s chapter of the NAACP, along with several other organizations, sent a list of 10 recommended actions to heads of law enforcement agencies throughout the county in an effort to increase community trust in the agencies.

The letters recommend that all agencies conduct a survey of citizens’ trust in police; abolish the use of chokeholds; mandate independent investigation and prosecution of in-custody deaths and officer involved shootings; train officers to de-escalate situations without the use of force; establish independent civilian review boards; hire more personnel of color; and several other actions aimed at improving public trust and community relations.

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Sent by the NAACP-Harford County, the Harford County Caucus of African American Leaders, BRIDGE Maryland and Together We Will Harford County/Upper Chesapeake, the letter lists several policies the organizations say would have prevented the death of George Floyd, a man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers last month, sparking nationwide demonstrations against unequal treatment of black people.

Letters were sent on June 6 to Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, along with chiefs of police at the Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace departments. Some of the agencies have already responded to it indicating that they are open to the recommendations or had already implemented some of the letter’s suggestions.

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James D. Thornton, who serves on Harford’s NAACP executive board and chairs the county’s Caucus of African American Leaders, said the letter is the first step toward making sure a death like Floyd’s does not happen in Harford County. After responses from heads of law enforcement are collected, they will be shared with communities in a virtual public forum. Those are expected to happen in the coming weeks.

“We are not immune,” Thornton said. "I think if we can be proactive and create these kinds of reforms, then hopefully the two of us will not be talking about an incident in Harford County.”

Thornton grew up in a segregated Alabama and went to a segregated school. Though his current-day experience differs from the sanctioned, racial policies of the past, today, black Americans are confronted with more entrenched, structural racism.

"I kind of knew where I stood in the south; growing up in Alabama. It was the way it was, the de facto way in which black folks were treated,” Thornton said. “We still see the vestiges of that.”

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In an 11-page response to the letter, Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said his office has implemented a number of changes since he was elected — to stay ahead of changes in policing. According to his letter, the sheriff’s office did not formerly have policies on unbiased policing, stop-and-frisk, early intervention and modern use-of-force guidelines. Also missing was a clear disciplinary and penal matrix, which now clarifies that discrimination, lying and profiling are offenses punishable by dismissal. All of those, Gahler said, have been addressed since he took office in December of 2014.

“We put all of these important policies/programs in place early in my first term in office not because of public pressure, but because they were the right things to do,” Gahler wrote.

Gahler wrote he was open to a conversation on collecting data on use of force incidents, developing a community survey and forming a board to review internal police investigations. But the letter’s recommendation to change parts of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a set of laws covering investigation of police misconduct — is not the office’s prerogative.

A sweeping set of reforms, including banning violent police tactics, making disciplinary records public and ending the purchase of military equipment for officers, in being discussed by state legislative leaders.

One issue Gahler identified was the office’s use of body-worn cameras. In 2015, a pilot program was conducted at the office. The program has since become permanent, he wrote, with 20 cameras issued to 10 deputies. But a significant investment would need to be made to expand the program at a cost of approximately $5 million over five years for 300 deputies.

“To begin, we would equip 238 uniformed deputy positions, Lieutenant and below, that routinely come into contact with the public,” spokesperson Cristie Hopkins wrote. “This does not include correctional deputies.”

The cameras are not the only expense the program would incur. Gahler said the office would need three civilian personnel to handle administrative tasks related to the footage like Freedom of Information Act requests, copying the videos and other unanticipated duties. Harford’s State’s Attorney’s Office, the letter states, would also need several administrative workers and potentially two prosecutors to handle the volume of material. The current budget does not have funding for body-worn cameras, and those expenses could impact future budgets with ongoing expenses.

Gahler said that nobody from the community publicly supported his past requests for body-worn cameras as prior budgets moved through the county council. Gahler encouraged the organizations to support the funding request he will make this fall for the cameras — the third year in a row he has done so, he wrote.

Though not all deputies have body-worn cameras, every patrol deputy’s car is equipped with a camera, an initiative funded with about $2 million in unused salary funding over the course of two budget cycles, Gahler wrote. Transport vans for arrestees and prisoners, he added, are also recorded.

Though chokeholds and strangleholds are not specifically taught to sheriff’s deputies or permitted by the office’s policy, Gahler wrote, he directed a revision to the policy on June 8 to only allow those tactics “in the very limited situations when deadly force is necessary to address an imminent threat to life.”

In a separate response to the organizations’ recommended actions, Chief of the Bel Air Police Department Charles A. Moore Jr. said he was “disturbed and appalled” by the actions Minneapolis police officers took, resulting in Floyd’s death.

Equally unfortunate, Moore’s letter continues, is potential for Floyd’s death to “damage and sabotage” efforts police departments across the country have taken to build trust with communities they serve. Moore said the department embraces the idea of community policing and has already implemented many of the letter’s recommendations. He also wrote that he is willing to meet and speak with the organizations.

The department had already commissioned an online community survey — overseen by its citizens advisory board — and found that citizens’ level of trust in the police department was overwhelmingly favorable. The board also provides input on issues of bias, misconduct and discrimination, he wrote.

Similarly, guidelines on the department’s misconduct investigations are posted online, though Moore wrote that “transparency concerning misconduct investigations that occur at the Bel Air Police Department are procedurally and legally protected unless officers are convicted/accused of criminal offenses.”

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In response to the letter’s call for independent investigation and prosecution of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, Moore wrote that the department could or may adhere to it if either event were to occur. The department also employs body-worn cameras, though it does not have vehicle cameras.

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The department does not use chokeholds or strangleholds as part of its use of force policy, he wrote.

Diversity of officers is also a concern of the department, Moore wrote, which has a “good representation of Hispanic/Latino officers and female officers.” He also encouraged the NAACP to work with the department to find good applicants.

“We are always seeking qualified minorities in order to fairly represent the community we serve and encourage agencies, such as the NAACP, to assist us in finding qualified applicants.”

Lt. William Reiber of the Aberdeen Police Department said the agency sent a 70-page response to the letter, complete with data and exhibits. Reiber said the department would want confirmation of the response’s receipt before discussing it publicly.

The Havre de Grace Police Department did not respond to questions in time for the publication of this article.

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