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Harford law enforcement officials hear community concerns about race and policing

Harford COunty Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, right center, group of police and community leaders gathered for a discussion of law enforcement and race in Bel Air Thursday morning.
Harford COunty Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, right center, group of police and community leaders gathered for a discussion of law enforcement and race in Bel Air Thursday morning. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Community and faith-based groups have been working for months to improve not only race relations in Harford County, but also the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities, whose representatives had an opportunity Thursday morning to publicly express their concerns to top local law enforcement officials.

What they told those leaders is that some people in Harford County are just as distrustful, scared and wary of police as people in other communities that have been wracked by violence, especially after police have killed unarmed African Americans.

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The Rev. J.B. Redding, who is with the Today's Seed, Tomorrow's Hope organization in Aberdeen, said several high-school age youths reported during prior community meetings that they are afraid of police, and they feel they are being judged as criminals because they wear hooded sweatshirts or have tattoos.

"Every single one said they were afraid," Redding recalled. "Now, that's notable because high school men don't stand in groups and say they're afraid very often."

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Redding also expressed her appreciation to the law enforcement participants in Thursday's forum.

"We certainly want to thank people who bring long-standing wisdom in these areas to the table and want to hear from the community as well," she said. "Dialogue has to be both ways, speaking and listening."

The Rev. Lisa Ward, of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County in Churchville, approached Sheriff Jeff Gahler about hosting a roundtable discussion among police officials and community members.

"That's why we're here today, to help each other function together," Ward said during the beginning of the forum.

Communities across the country have been rocked by protests, and rioting in some cases, after white police officers have killed unarmed African Americans during the past year – it has been almost one year since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014.

"Because of what's been happening in the nation, we realized we need to take a deeper look at race relations and law enforcement," Ward said.

The Harford County forum was held Thursday morning in a conference room at the Sheriff's Office headquarters in downtown Bel Air, and about 35 people attended, including pastors, members of grassroots community organizations, Maryland State Police and Maryland Transportation Authority Police commanders, who serve Harford County, Gahler and his top aides, and the chiefs of the Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments.

Gahler also noted that a legislative task force has been formed in Annapolis to review police-community relations.

The Public Safety & Policing Work Group was formed in May after Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died from injuries he suffered while in police custody. Baltimore was rocked by several days of unrest in late April after Gray died, and Harford County officers were among the police personnel drawn from outside the city to support Baltimore police during the rioting.

"This is almost a mini-version of [the task force]," Gahler said of the roundtable discussion.

The forum lasted for about two hours, and some of the community leaders stressed that law enforcement officers must build trust in local minority communities, especially among youths who have expressed fear of officers after dealing with what they see as unwarranted harassment.

'Building a diverse force'

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The Harford County Sheriff's Office has 576 employees in its civilian staff, law enforcement officers and corrections officers.

Sixty-three of those employees are black, 14 are of another race, and the rest are white, according to statistics presented by Gahler.

The Sheriff's Office is 86.6 percent white and 10.9 percent black, according to Gahler's statistics

Census figures for 2014 show 81.1 percent of the county's population of 250,105 was white, and 13.2 percent was black.

Gahler said he is committed to creating a more diverse Sheriff's Office, and he said that, as the Sheriff's Office brings in a new recruiting class, staff will track where applicants drop out at each point in the recruiting and training process to see where the barriers are in getting more minorities in uniform.

Tim Wills, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County, said he grew up in Ferguson, and "I understand very well what police interaction is with young black men."

"To me, a black officer and a white officer are no different, in the sense that black officers can be just as rude and evil as white officers can be," he said.

Wills said he is more concerned about what police departments are doing internally "to encourage other officers to step up when something is not right."

He said young black and Latino men do not always comply with orders when stopped by police officers because they do not think they will be heard if they comply and later file a complaint if they think the stop was unreasonable.

"They don't believe that the process is there for something to be done, and that's why they don't comply," he said.

"I think the police profession overall polices itself very well, and there's going to be exceptions to it where something breaks down," Gahler responded.

The sheriff said "anyone can make a complaint against anyone" by going through the Sheriff's Office internal affairs unit.

"We entertain all complaints," Capt. Holly Barrett, commander of the Maryland State Police Northern Troop, which oversees barracks in Carroll, Cecil and Harford counties, said..

Barrett said citizens can make complaints to internal affairs either online or by visiting their local barrack, and Lt. Eliott Cohen, commander of the agency's employment service section, said State Police employees can use the same process for complaints.

"I can tell if something is up just by the culture and the dynamic of each shift or squad, and in many cases officers will distance themselves from somebody who is a problem," Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter said.

Gahler and Dennis Murphey, director of law enforcement training for the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, talked at length about the intensive training recruits must go through before they are certified to become Harford sheriff's deputies or police officers elsewhere in Maryland.

Gahler said recruits must complete 27 weeks of training in their police academy, followed by 12 weeks of training in the field with a senior deputy, municipal officer or state trooper.

The sheriff said officers must also complete annual in-service training programs on topics such as ethics.

"It takes a long time to get somebody through the background [check], through the academy and into the office," Gahler said.

Murphey said about 20 percent of the people who enter a police academy in Maryland do not finish the program.

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He said some decide a police career is not for them, others are injured while in training or they fail academic and skills requirements.

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Some of the recruits who leave the academies do because of integrity problems, such as cheating on a test.

"Integrity is paramount with every police academy and every police department," Murphey said. "They want officers that tell the truth, that don't cheat, that don't plagiarize; we think we owe that to the public."

He added: "If they're going to stand and testify under oath, they must have integrity. We want people with integrity."

Gahler, who is retired from the Maryland State Police, said Sheriff's Office employees and state troopers must sign a form committing to acting with integrity at all times.

"They understand that, it's either be truthful or lose your job," Gahler said.

The sheriff said it is "completely unacceptable" for an officer to be rude to a civilian, but they must also consider "officer survival" and look for anything that could harm them during an interaction with that person.

"It's a matter of perspective," he said. "It's a matter of understanding."

Barrett, of the state police, said "the expectation for our police officers is professionalism, courtesy at all times, even in the face of extreme provocation."

The meeting ended with community leaders and police officials talking and shaking hands.

Tandra Ridgley, vice president and co-founder of The GrassRoots Steering Foundation Inc., of Aberdeen, said Harford County is "so far ahead of a lot of communities," despite the concerns expressed Thursday.

"I have been to community meetings that have been totally ripped apart," she said.

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