Since a Maryland Legal Aid lawyer filed a complaint last week with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office alleging discrimination by a deputy, the firm representing the attorney has received additional calls about other incidents of discrimination in the county.
Rashad James, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid’s community lawyering initiative, alleged the deputy detained and questioned him — suspecting he was his client impersonating an attorney — on the basis of his race. James and his client are African-American. The law firm referred to the incident as “lawyering while black.”
The complaint filed Tuesday asked the Harford sheriff’s office to conduct a full investigation and record the incident in the officer’s personnel file.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler has said the complaint was “promptly assigned to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office — Office of Professional Standards for a complete and thorough investigation. We take all complaints seriously.”
The investigation into James’ complaint is ongoing, said Cristie Hopkins, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Office. .
“When someone files a complaint against the agency or a deputy, an investigation is launched, and we have to see that investigation that all the way through,” she said. “Investigations take time to interview all the appropriate people[and] look for surrounding information that might be pertinent.”
The Baltimore-based law firm of Brown Goldstein Levy had spoken with eight or nine people as of the end of last week complaining of “racial discrimination in Harford County generally,” said Chelsea Crawford, an attorney with the firm.
One was from a woman who has three black sons who complained about “constant harassment and profiling from Harford County deputies,” she said.
“That’s the flavor of what we’ve been getting,” she said. “We’re hearing anecdotes of Harford County being a place that’s not as welcoming to people of color.”
Hopkins said she was unaware of the cases Crawford was referring to, but if someone feels he or she has been treated unfairly by a deputy in Harford County, “we encourage them to make an official complaint and we would follow that up with the same type of investigation [as James’ complaint].”
“We can’t look into an incident if we don’t know it occurred,” Hopkins said.
Crawford did not say if the complaints were specific to the Sheriff's Office. She noted that no one at the firm has had further in-depth conversation with anyone who’s called to investigate their circumstances more closely, but her firm has received an influx of calls from people saying “it didn’t necessarily surprise them, what happened to Mr. James.”
Racial relations in Harford County
Zilpha Smith, president of the Harford County branch of the NAACP, said she has not received any complaints specifically regarding the alleged profiling of James, but she has received complaints over the years about other incidents of racial discrimination or profiling in the county.
Smith said that she has talked with Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff’s Office, but much of her information about the incident involving James has come from what is reported in the local news media.
“I’m waiting to see what the investigation turns up,” she said.
Smith said racial issues in Harford have become “worse and worse” in recent years. She has handled prior complaints of racial profiling and discrimination, and her organization has met with officials from municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies in Harford to resolve those issues.
Smith said there are not just issues of racial profiling by the police, but other racially-charged incidents such as a group of Bel Air High School students spelling out the N-word during Scrabble Day, part of the school’s Spirit Week, in the fall of 2017 and Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s use of the same slur to describe a legislative district in Prince George’s County during an after-hours gathering with fellow legislators in January.
“We need to come together as one voice to try to resolve some of the issues that have taken place,” Smith said. “It’s a question that is going to be in front of us for quite some time. When you think you have resolved some issues, or one issue, something else crops up — it keeps coming to the forefront.”
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said that “racism has no place in Harford County, and we have made great strides as a prosperous community that is open to folks of all races to live, work and raise families.
“I know that despite our progress, racism still exists in our nation, so it has been important for me to reject it whenever it occurs in Harford.”
Glassman noted the Choose Civility campaign, a national effort that he and Harford County Library CEO Mary Hastler joined to bring a local chapter to the county last June, intended to “spread a message of tolerance, empathy, and acceptance of all people.”
While Harford still has an elected sheriff who does not fall under the purview of the county executive, Glassman said he’s engaged in conversations with Gahler since the incident was reported, and said “Gahler has assured me that he is completing a full investigation of the recent courthouse incident and will report his findings publicly as soon as possible.
“I know that he has a record of transparency and works actively with all communities to promote understanding of law enforcement duties and responsibilities,” Glassman said of the sheriff.
The two African-American members of the seven-person Harford County Council, Republican Curtis Beulah and Democrat Andre Johnson, said they do not want to comment on the incident with James until the Sheriff’s Office investigation is complete.
Racism is a national issue, “but we can’t shy away from the fact that there is a racial problem in our county,” Johnson said Friday.
“Harford County isn’t immune to problems and we definitely have an issue, and some point we need to address the issue so that we can effectively start healing, not only as a nation but as a county and a community as a whole,” he said.
Support for James
Crawford said she’s not sure if the callers to her firm are looking for legal representation or if they’re simply sharing their experiences or support for James.
“It’s interesting and telling people have started to talk about this and raise their voices about what happened in Harford County,” Crawford said. “It’s a good thing if people can voice what happened in their communities, or to the extent the Sheriff’s Office is listening, they will take it more seriously.”
Their firm has received at least one email thanking the lawyers for representing James and another has made a donation to Legal Aid in James’ name.
“In some ways, people are voicing their support for Mr. James, who’s speaking up and not being silent about the situation,” Crawford said. “He could have done nothing. He would have walked out of the courthouse and gone back to work.”
Hopefully, she said, the support for James will change the discourse in Harford and beyond.
“Sometimes you live in a place long enough and get used to living a certain way. Things like this shine a light on the community and to an extent that’s a good thing,” Crawford said. “Hopefully we can get a resolution to this, at a minimum an apology — that would be a big step in the right direction.”
The Sheriff’s Office would like to have answers just as much as public, Hopkins said.
“But we’re not going to rush to judgment,” she said. “We’re going to ask for patience from people so this investigation is thorough and accurate.”