When Dr. Walter Eugene Egerton went out at about 5 a.m. for his regular early morning run four weeks ago, he didn't know he was running into the middle of a manhunt for two burglary suspects, or that he was about to be detained by police.
At about 4 a.m. that morning, two men broke into the Churchville Dunkin' Donuts and Main Street Cigar in the shopping center across Route 22 from Harford Community College.
The suspects, New Jersey residents Harold E. Carter Jr., 24, and Blaze L. Hollingsworth, 24, who are black, were under surveillance by Howard County Police detectives, who had followed the pair into Harford County after they allegedly broke into a Dunkin' Donuts and Subway in Laurel, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
About an hour later, as police searched in the pre-dawn hours for the suspects, they came upon the 61-year-old Egerton, a trained pediatrician and retired Army colonel, who is African-American, on his run from his home behind Campus Hills Shopping Center when he was approached by police. The suspect police were looking for, and who remains at large, also is African-American.
The 61-year-old Egerton didn't expect the treatment he was about to get. He said he was made to lie face down on the ground, while he was handcuffed behind his back. That was, he said, even though he did everything police told him, long after it was clear he wasn't one of the two suspects sought in nearby burglaries.
"My issue, is once I stopped, turned around and had my arms out and it was obvious I was going to cooperate, was it necessary to put me on the ground and handcuff me? Was it wholly necessary?" Egerton said.
Egerton, who has been commander of the Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic at Aberdeen Proving Ground and chief medical officer for the University of Maryland midtown campus, addressed his concerns during a meeting on April 1 with Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, who promised to conduct a thorough analysis of Egerton's detention. That meeting took place in Gahler's office.
"I want steps to be taken so this doesn't become normal, or isn't the rule," Egerton said. "If you're a black person, this is the norm, at least in other parts of the country. Harford County doesn't have to be other parts of the country."
Gahler came back to Egerton with his findings last week, when he and Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff's Office, met with Egerton and his wife, Deborah, at their home in Campus Hills.
The sheriff presented Egerton with a detailed summary of everything that happened, why Egerton was stopped and why things happened the way they did, Egerton said Wednesday.
"And he did apologize for what I went through," Egerton said.
The sheriff, who confirmed he met with Egerton, said that "after a thorough review, it has been determined deputies acted in accordance with the law and policy," according to a statement provided by Cristie Kahler, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office.
"I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to engage in open dialogue about this incident, and I apologize for any inconvenience or embarrassment the incident may have caused you. It is indeed an unfortunate occurrence anytime law-abiding members of the community are unknowingly thrust into such a situation. Thank you for your service to our community and our country," Gahler wrote to Egerton.
Egerton, who never filed a formal complaint with the Sheriff's Office, said he is satisfied with Gahler's explanation.
"There were other factors involved I was not aware of. He explained those to me. To be quite honest, it made sense," Egerton said.
"I'm satisfied in his pledge that the sheriff's department does all that it can, that it is looking at ways they can do what they do even better."
One of those other factors, Egerton said he was told, was the lack of communication as the burglary unfolded, including with the Howard County Police Department detectives who had followed the burglary suspects into Harford and had them under surveillance as they allegedly broke into the Dunkin' Donuts and Main Street Cigar in the 2300 block of Churchville Road, not far from where Egerton was running.
"I don't believe they knew exactly who they were looking for at the time," he said. "I am confident I wasn't stopped because I was black. I was stopped because I was running. What was known was that an assailant was running from a crime scene and I happened to be running in the area."
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After this incident, he said, he's going to do what all good residents of Harford County should do: "Keep my eyes open and watch."