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Harford County

Harford sheriff says 'lawyering while black' complaint 'unfounded'

The Harford County sheriff’s Office of Professional Standards has determined a lawyer’s accusation of racial bias against a deputy last month was “unfounded” after an investigation.

“The facts show us this complaint is completely without merit,” Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said during a Tuesday news conference. “The deputy did nothing wrong.”


Lawyers for Rashad James, however, said their client is “very disappointed by the outcome of the investigation.”

“Both we and he continue to believe he was treated differently because of the color of his skin,” Andrew Freeman, with the Baltimore-based Brown Goldstein Levy, said at a subsequent news conference outside the southern precinct.


“We do continue to believe they owe Mr. James an apology,” he said.

Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the Harford Deputy Sheriff’s Union, said the incident occurred when James approached the assistant state’s attorney and didn’t clearly identify himself as a lawyer.

The prosecutor knew the defendant in the case had an open warrant and alerted the deputy, a 36-year veteran, that the defendant was in the courtroom, Davey said. When the case was called, James identified himself as an attorney.

The assistant state’s attorney indicated her confusion over the lawyer’s identity to the deputy at that point and the deputy had a conversation with James first in the courtroom lobby before asking him to come into an interview room, Davey said.

James, a Maryland Legal Aid attorney, did not have a business card or a Maryland State Bar Association Courthouse Identification badge, and presented the deputy with a North Carolina driver’s license, Davey said. Eventually, the deputy was able to verify that James was an attorney. The entire incident lasted about five minutes, Davey said.

Freeman said the entire interaction should have ended when Mr. James presented his driver’s license with his name, age and identifying features, which are significantly different from those of his client.

“He and we continue to believe, but for the color of his skin, the deputy sheriff would have looked at his driver’s license, looked at him and seen Mr. James was who he said and not his client and that should have ended it,” Freeman said. “And that had he been a white man rather than a black man that would have happened.”

Since James made his complaint, his firm has received more than a dozen complaints of people who felt mistreated because they were a different race, Freeman said.


“Whether any of those is explicable, that is how the citizens of Harford County feel, that is how Mr. James felt and what we believe based on our investigation of this incident,” he said.

James wasn’t seeking to have the deputy fired, nor is he trying to get money because of the incident.

“We continue to believe they owe him an apology and while we’re disappointed in the Harford County Sheriff’s Office response, we continue to think of this as a learning opportunity,” Freeman said.

The incident should be used for training for all deputy sheriffs throughout the agency about racial bias and implicit bias, he said.

The deputy is “troubled greatly” by the accusation, Gahler said.

“It’s disturbing to him after 36 years and has never had a personnel complaint, this has devastated him,” he said. “It’s taken an emotional strain on him to be accused of such a thing.”


Michael Montalvo, president of the Harford Deputy Sheriffs Union, said James and his lawyers owe the deputy an apology.

“It’s clear Mr. James was treated fairly and reasonably,” Montalvo said. “The only explicit bias here is against law enforcement. The real victim here is our deputy.”


James filed a complaint last month alleging a deputy detained and questioned him in District Court — suspecting he was his client impersonating an attorney — on the basis of his race, an incident the law firm representing him, Baltimore-based Brown Goldstein Levy, called “lawyering while black.”

The complaint asked the sheriff’s office to conduct a full investigation and record the incident in the officer’s personnel file.

On March 6, James appeared in Harford County District Court to represent a client. His client, who is also black, was not present, but there was an open warrant for his arrest.

The complaint alleged the deputy detained and questioned James after the hearing, suspecting he was his client impersonating a lawyer. James showed his driver’s license, but the officer did not believe it was valid, the complaint said.

After about 10 minutes, he was released, according to the complaint.


Community response

Zilpha Smith, president of the Harford branch of the NAACP, was among several community activists invited by the sheriff to the press conference to hear the results of the investigation.

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“I am satisfied with the findings,” Smith said. “I’m OK with what had taken place and what the sheriff had found, that it was an unfounded incident, that it did not prove any racial profiling by the Sheriff’s Office.”

The history of Harford County had a lot of racial problems with people of color, but is not the county it was 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, Tandra Ridgley, of the Grassroots Steering Foundation, said following the news conference.

“We have made great strides in race relations,” Ridgley said.

People of color are under-represented, however, in leadership roles in Harford County, said Jim Thornton, of the Harford County Caucus of African-American Leaders, including in classrooms, department heads at the county government level and even in the Sheriff’s Office.

“We come up short of where we’d like to be,” Thornton said. “There’s still tremendous opportunity for more diversity, more inclusion in the way we operate in the county.”


Rev. Baron Young, pastor of St. James AME Church in Havre de Grace, said he appreciated the seriousness with which Gahler investigated the complaint and for the invitation to Tuesday’s news conference.

“The ongoing relationships being nurtured, to me, point to something to be hopeful for,” Young said.