Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony G. Brown is drawing criticism for using uniformed Baltimore police officers in a campaign ad attacking his Republican challenger over guns — and the department is investigating whether the officers broke its rules.
A police spokesman pointed to a department policy that says officers are "strictly prohibited" from appearing in uniform in political ads. The television ad, which is now airing in Baltimore, has prompted a torrent of comments on Brown's Facebook page from other officers, who say it does not represent their views.
The police union and the Brown campaign, meanwhile, contended that because the officers' uniforms were stripped down — their "Baltimore Police" patches are blurred, and they are not wearing their badges — they were not actually in uniform.
"The only thing we have to do per general order is not be in full uniform," said Robert F. Cherry, the president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "The full uniform is the patch, the badge, and the name tag."
Police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said it would be "premature" to comment on the union's position.
The video features two city officers, one male and one female. The woman looks into the camera and says that Republican candidate Larry Hogan's "record on guns … would make my job more dangerous."
"Larry Hogan's dangerous agenda has no place in Maryland," the man says.
Their shoulder patches are blurred, but they wear the city department's distinctive district pins on their collars. The pins indicate that the officers work in the Northern and Northwestern districts.
City officers have been prohibited from appearing in political ads since 2002, but officers have appeared in ads since and, in one instance in 2010, were publicly defended by the department for doing so.
The national Fraternal Order of Police instructs officers not to "allow their likeness to be used in campaign literature in the police officers' professional capacity."
Maryland state law protects the right of state and local government employees to participate in partisan political activity as long as they are not on the job, according to an opinion from the attorney general's office.
L. Douglas Ward, director of the division of public safety leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said he tells his students to avoid political involvement while in uniform.
"When it comes time for elections, the Police Department has to be out of it," Ward said. "Politicians like to see uniforms in their ads. You've got to be able to say 'No.' That's a tough thing to do sometimes."
Police officials said in a statement that they "did not authorize the appearance and we are looking into the matter."
The current policy was established in 2002 by then-Commissioner Edward T. Norris after uniformed but off-duty officers appeared in ads for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat.
The policy says officers are "strictly prohibited" from participating in political activity while "wearing a departmental uniform," and any "public speaking activities" must be pre-approved.
The Fraternal Order of Police, whose state conference has endorsed Brown, provided the officers for the commercial. Cherry said they were off-duty at the time.
Brown campaign spokesman Justin Schall said the officers "were expressing their own views and exercising their First Amendment rights. All rules and procedures were followed."
Cherry said the agency's rules define what constitutes a full uniform, and the officers' appearances were altered to avoid any violation.
Cherry said it was important that real officers appeared in the ad.
"A lot of political campaigns use phony people as props," he said.
In 2010, a member of the department's media relations unit appeared in uniform in a campaign commercial for then-state's attorney candidate Gregg L. Bernstein.
The department defended the officer, saying he was off duty, on his own time, and exercising his free-speech rights. Notably, then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III had publicly supported Bernstein, a rare move that was also questioned at the time.
Gary McLhinney, a former longtime city police union president, appeared in uniform in campaign commercials for several political candidates and said he never faced sanctions. He said that might have had more to do with politics than policy.
"We always made sure we had political cover when we did it," McLhinney said.
Joe Cluster, the director of the state GOP, said he is concerned any time a candidate politicizes public employees. He said police officials have lost their jobs for engaging in political activities while in uniform.
"As lieutenant governor, [Brown] should know better than to put these officers in a bad position," Cluster said.
The Hogan campaign, asked for comment, focused on the ad's claims about Hogan's position on guns.
The officers in the ads say Hogan "refuses to support a ban on high-capacity magazines" and "common-sense background checks." A spokesman called the ad "blatantly false" and a "scare tactic."
Brown has hammered Hogan on guns, pointing to the Republican's opposition to the 2013 state gun control law banning the sale of certain assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and requiring strict background checks for handgun purchasers.
In recent debates, Hogan has said repeatedly that he sees the matter as settled.
"We're not going to repeal SB 281," he said.
Hogan supporter James Gross, a 35-year-old construction superintendent from Frederick, called The Baltimore Sun to express his frustration with the ad. He said it irked him because the officers were in uniform.
"They shouldn't be wearing the official clothing that I and Maryland taxpayers paid for them to wear," Gross said. "If they're off-duty, they need to wear their off-duty clothes and say, 'I'm a police officer and I don't agree with Hogan.' It's a deceptive ad."
Several commenters who identified themselves as officers took to Brown's Facebook page to criticize the ad.
"It's 100 percent against general order for them to campaign for a candidate in uniform," one wrote. "I hope they get charged."
But many appeared to take issue with the politics of the assault weapon issue.
"What a sneaky campaign knowing that this BS ad completely misrepresents the majority of police officers' political views," one wrote.
Seventy percent of officers surveyed last year by the law enforcement website PoliceOne.com said a ban on assault weapons would not reduce violent crime.
Only about 1 percent of guns seized by Baltimore police in 2012 met the definition of an assault weapon. Handguns were by far the weapon used most often in crimes.
Only two of the 189 people who were shot to death in Baltimore last year were shot by a weapon other than a handgun, records show.