Deputies with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office fatally shot a man in a Forest Hill shopping center Saturday, the first deputy-involved shooting in the county in several years.
The incident might be an early test for a new Maryland law meant to increase the transparency of investigations into police-involved deaths.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general’s office said the sheriff’s office was refusing to allow Maryland State Police investigators to collect evidence in the case.
“This has not happened before,” said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat.
The shooting happened around 4 p.m. Saturday at the Bel Air North Village shopping center. Police tape blocked off the Chopstix restaurant and a neighboring martial arts studio later that evening.
At a media briefing across the street, Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler, a Republican, told reporters that deputies from Harford County’s Northern Precinct had been dispatched at 2:44 p.m. in reference to a “reportedly suicidal subject” who was believed to be armed with a long gun.
After searching for an hour and speaking with the subject, an adult man, on the phone, Gahler said they located him inside the shopping center behind the Forest Hill CVS.
Deputies fired their guns at the man, who was taken to a local hospital and died. “This remains a very active initial investigation,” Gahler said, adding that he expected the police presence to continue in the area into Saturday evening.
Gahler said two deputies, whom he did not name, have been placed on routine administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident. Neither were injured in the shooting.
All patrol personnel with the sheriff’s office wear body-worn cameras; a spokeswoman for the department did not say whether they were activated at the time of the shooting.
“Investigators will look to collect whatever was captured,” said Cristie Hopkins, director of communications for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
In accordance with the law, passed by Maryland’s General Assembly last year as part of a broad police reform package, a group called the Independent Investigations Division, which falls under the Maryland Attorney General’s office, in partnership with Maryland State Police, are now supposed to investigate all deadly uses of force by officers across the state, along with investigators from Maryland State Police.
“The unit was created to conduct thorough, transparent, independent investigations, for the officers involved and for the families of the deceased individual,” Coombs said.
Under the new division’s protocols, local agencies call a state hotline following any police-related death. State police investigators and crime scene technicians then conduct the investigation, turning their findings over to the local state’s attorney for a decision on whether to charge the officers involved.
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Harford County officials have previously raised concerns about those protocols, suggesting the involvement of state officials could impede local law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes.
After the law was passed, Gahler said his office crafted its own policy for how to respond following a deputy-involved death, which includes having local law enforcement collect evidence on the ground. “Local police still have to be the point of collection if you want to have the best crime scene processing you can,” he said, noting that forensics teams with Maryland State Police took several hours to arrive to the scene of Saturday’s shooting. Frosh’s office disputed that timeline.
In a statement, Coombs said members of the sheriff’s department refused to allow Maryland State Police to collect evidence at the scene Saturday and insisted that their own employees do so.
She added: “This interference with the case is exactly what the law is designed to prohibit, and it does not guarantee the independent investigation that the people of Maryland deserve.”
While Gahler acknowledged his office’s policies are in conflict with the protocols that Frosh’s office put out, he said that they are in compliance with state law, whereas Frosh’s protocols aren’t.
“It’s a shame we have an attorney general who doesn’t want us to obey the law,” he said.