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Maryland State Police must investigate allegations of discrimination against Black troopers | COMMENTARY

Governor Larry Hogan speaks during the Maryland State Police Superintendent's Awards Ceremony at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions center in Sykesville Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.
Governor Larry Hogan speaks during the Maryland State Police Superintendent's Awards Ceremony at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions center in Sykesville Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Some disturbing allegations have been made against the Maryland State Police and the way it treats its Black troopers. More than 20 of the officers took their complaints to members of the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus, and last week lawmakers grilled Secretary of the State Police Col. Woodrow “Jerry” Jones III about an alleged culture of discrimination where Black officers feel there is little room for advancement and that they are disciplined more harshly for infractions than their white colleagues. Other accusations include ignoring retaliation against officers who complain, including not taking seriously when a Black trooper found a banana (a tired and old racist trope, we should say) on the hood of his car. The lawmakers were also told these troopers were forced to listen to racist jokes from white colleagues.

A spokesman for the state police denied the allegations, and Col. Jones said during the meeting with Black Caucus members that he does not tolerate racism and discrimination against anyone. He described the allegations against his agency as “vague” and said more detail would help better address the issue. Concerned troopers could provide a waiver to their personnel records so the cases could be discussed with lawmakers, Col. Jones also said.

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But we find it hard to believe that the state police is a model of racial harmony when more than 20 troopers felt strongly enough about what they perceived as unfair treatment to bring the matter to lawmakers — and an attorney. Maybe the department could argue that one or two complaints were cases of sour grapes. Such a large number raises serious concern and should not be brushed off and ignored. Members of the caucus said they have heard such concerns about racial inequities for 15 years or more and have reached their last bit of patience on the issue. Years of such allegations also sends up red flags.

Col. Jones told lawmakers the state police has policies that address discrimination. That sounds good, but if the culture of the department is such that people feel as if the rules aren’t going to be enforced, who is going to come forward? Especially when discipline matters go before other troopers, as several lawmakers pointed out. Words on paper mean little if that is all they are. Col. Jones wants people to come forward and to foster a community of trust. Clearly, the department hasn’t done a good job with that.

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Also, how can Col. Jones dispute allegations regarding promotions when he couldn’t even tell the Black Caucus how many African Americans are in the specialized K-9 and aviation units? How did lawmakers know that was a concern among Black troopers, but their boss did not? The specialized units come with better pay, which raises the question of wage equity within the department as well. Black Caucus members gave Col. Jones 30 days to provide them with that information and other data as well, including a breakdown of major and minor infractions by race, the number of promotions and demotions by race, and what kind of diversity training officers get.

If the information doesn’t address the lawmakers concerns, they promised to take next steps, including targeting the agency’s “sizable budget.” We hope lawmakers follow through. If complaints of discrimination have gone on unaddressed for as long as claimed, that is unacceptable and the state police department needs to be held accountable once and for all. Thanks to a social justice movement sparked by several high profile police brutality incidents, the spotlight is on troubles with policing, and that scrutiny should include problems within departments as well. The Black Caucus should also consider whether an audit of the police department is appropriate. Even better, the General Assembly could launch an investigation, much like they did over the hefty severance received by the former head of the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency. If the state police has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide, they should welcome any kind of investigation.

Col. Jones vehemently said he is ready to give lawmakers any information they need, and pointed out that over the past five years, the Maryland State Police has spent $500,000 on a marketing campaign specifically focused on African Americans and other minorities that included partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as suggested by the Legislative Black Caucus. Of the 467 troopers hired in the past five years, 33% were minorities and 14% African Americans, a spokesman for the department said. For the first time in the department’s history, every command level responsible for the promotional process is a minority.

The question still remains, however, how officers are treated within the department. Enough are saying not fairly, and that is something that needs to be addressed.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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