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Crime

Maryland attorney general sues Harford County sheriff for ‘interfering’ with investigation of fatal shooting by deputies

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sued Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler on Monday for “interfering” with the state’s investigation into a fatal shooting by county deputies in Forest Hill on Saturday.

In a court filing, Frosh said his office has not been allowed access to physical evidence from the scene of the fatal shooting of 53-year-old John Raymond Fauver, nor has it been given electronic copies of video footage recorded during the incident.

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The court battle, preceded by two days of arguments between the county and state officials, could be an early test for a Maryland law passed in 2021 that gave the attorney general’s office the power to investigate such incidents.

Frosh, a Democrat, asked for a judgment from the Harford County Circuit Court clarifying that his office “is to have custody of all original evidence in a police-involved civilian death.” He also called for an injunction from the court that would restrain the sheriff’s office from getting in the way of his office’s probe.

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The Harford County Sheriff’s Office on Monday identified two deputies, Sgt. Bradford Sives and Cpl. Christopher Maddox, who are on administrative leave following Saturday’s incident.

After Frosh’s filing Monday, Gahler, a Republican, said the attorney general was “politicizing” the incident.

“It’s a shame that this couldn’t be worked out ahead of time in some manner,” Gahler said. “And I attribute that to the inflexibility of the attorney general.”

In letters dating to August, Gahler has disputed the attorney general’s interpretation of the state law, arguing that nothing in the law gave the office exclusive authority over investigations. The offices debated back and forth without reaching an agreement, until an attorney for Gahler said the exchange had “likely run its course.”

Now, a court will decide.

“It’s sad because at the center of this, there is a life lost. There is a family impacted. There are officers waiting to see what their future holds,” Gahler said.

In interviews, Fauver’s family described him as an intelligent person and gentle soul who suffered from mental health issues and chronic pain.

His wife, Jennifer, who asked that her last name be withheld, sent a text message to colleagues and friends following his death.

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“John committed suicide by police officer,” she wrote. “My heart is broken for the officers involved. My heart is broken for John.”

The deputies are both 15-year veterans of the agency, according to the sheriff’s office. Sives is assigned to the agency’s Police Operations Bureau and assigned to the Northern District, which is based in Jarrettsville, and Maddox works in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Investigative Services Bureau, the sheriff’s office said. Neither was injured during the shooting.

Deputies got calls about Fauver, who was “reportedly suicidal” and believed to be wielding a long gun, around 3 p.m. Saturday, the sheriff’s office said.

The deputies encountered Fauver behind a CVS store on Rock Spring Road and fired at him around 4 p.m. Deputies performed CPR on Fauver, and he was taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, where he died.

The sheriff’s office declined to clarify Monday whether Fauver was found with a gun, saying they were not prepared to disclose information about any evidence from the scene.

In his court filing Monday, Frosh said the Harford County Sheriff’s Office notified his office’s Independent Investigative Division about the shooting at 4:49 p.m. Saturday and the division arrived to the shooting scene at 5:31 p.m.

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When individuals from the division arrived, alongside personnel from Maryland State Police, officials from the sheriff’s office said they would “not be allowed” to process the scene or collect any evidence. In a phone call with division chief Dana Mulhauser, Gahler “stated unequivocally that he was refusing” to allow state officials to collect the evidence, according to Frosh’s filing.

By the time the sheriff’s office began collecting evidence, the state police were on the scene, the filing stated.

The sheriff’s office has “not responded” to the division’s request for access to the physical evidence.

Harford County State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger said the sheriff’s office also would not provide copies of the video evidence, though it could be viewed by state officials in the sheriff’s office’s mobile command center.

“It’s my opinion that the law requires access, not copies,” Peisinger said in an interview, adding that state investigators had the ability to “walk the scene” when they arrived, and had an invitation from him and others already on the scene to view the video at their convenience.

The local state’s attorney’s office is tasked with making a decision about whether to pursue charges against officers involved in a civilian’s death after the attorney general’s office’s investigation.

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Peisinger said the state investigative unit’s practice of publishing video from police-involved fatalities within 14 days of the shooting could jeopardize “the integrity of the investigation.”

“Once information starts getting out there, then you start to wonder if witness testimony is based upon personal recollection or if it could be biased or influenced because they watched the video 10 times or five times,” Peisinger said.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who helped craft the law that empowers the attorney general’s office to investigate fatalities by police, said the law and its intent are clear, and, in her opinion, Harford County is breaking it.

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Anyone who interprets the law like Gahler and Peisinger “just doesn’t want to comply with the law,” Atterbeary said, and risks “folks coming back to the legislature next session and passing legislation to punish those that don’t comply.”

In his legal filing, Frosh traced the history of the legislation that provided his office with the power to investigate police-involved civilian deaths, including failed attempts by some legislators to keep investigatory authority with local law enforcement. At the time, Gahler testified that he supported such changes.

In 2022, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bill that strengthens the previous legislation, stating the attorney general’s independent investigations division is “the primary investigative unit” for such cases. The bill also stated that local law enforcement agencies “shall provide any requested evidence” to the division. The law takes effect July 1.

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Gahler said he felt his office would have to do “very little, if anything” to change its policies, because he already believes that the division has the primary authority to investigate police conduct. But he said he disagrees with the assertion that local law enforcement agencies cannot also investigate criminal activity leading up to police uses of force that result in death.

Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee, which shepherded the legislation that mandated the independent investigations through the legislature, said Gahler is bucking the legislature’s authority. He said this year’s legislation should have cleared up any manufactured ambiguity about the lawmakers’ intent.

“That’s twice in the last two years that the policy choice of the General Assembly has been very clear: We believe there should be an independent agency investigating these deaths,” Clippinger said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Jason Fontelieu contributed to this article.


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