Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson says officers in his department should not have asked to meet with two Dundalk activists after they testified at a County Council work session in Towson this month.
The Dundalk residents — a community association president and a former state lawmaker — have said it felt like police intimidation when officers met them at a local library to go over rules for public meetings after they had testified against county plans to redevelop the North Point Government Center.
Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said Monday that after reviewing the matter, Johnson "determined almost immediately that this meeting [at the library] was not beneficial and not necessary."
"The chief has made it emphatically clear that this department encourages people to express their opinions," she said. "We welcome spirited debate at our meetings, and this department ... does not want to provide or create an impression that we stand in the way of people expressing their opinions. So this is not going to happen again."
A police corporal contacted Karen Cruz, president of the Eastfield-Stanbrook Civic Association, and Bob Staab, a former county parks director and state legislator, after plainclothes officers assigned to the July 1 work session witnessed what they later characterized as disruptive and disrespectful behavior from the audience. The corporal asked to meet Cruz and Staab at the North Point Library, where they were met by three police officials.
According to reports filed by police a week after the work session, some people shouted questions from their seats, and some became "agitated" when they learned they were allowed to speak to the council only for three minutes. One police report said Cruz kept talking after her time was up and later was speaking loudly to another spectator.
Armacost said it's "standard procedure" for police to reach out to protest groups to explain laws on demonstrations, but "there is clearly a difference" between protests and testifying at a public meeting.
The chief "understood that while the intention of these officers was good, that a visit by police after testifying like this could be misconstrued," Armacost said.
Cruz and Staab belong to a group called Dundalk United, which formed to oppose the sale of the North Point Government Center. They had said that they were confused about the police contacting them and felt like the department was trying to intimidate them.
Staab said Monday he was happy to hear of Johnson's conclusion.
"It makes me feel a lot better," he said. "I could not figure out why in the world they were doing what they did."
Cruz, however, said she was not satisfied. She disputed the police's characterization of her and other residents' behavior, and said she felt some council members showed disrespect to the people from Dundalk who testified.
"It's still intimidation and abuse of power," she said. "It's a scary day for democracy when local government uses the Police Department to try to silence our First Amendment rights because we disagree with them."