There are times when governments take actions that seem badly overdue. Honoring Henrietta Lacks of Turner Station, whose cells have been vital for developing cancer treatments, got her name on a recently-approved congressional effort to better represent minorities in cancer research, for example. She died 69 years ago. More than five years after the death of Freddie Gray, there’s been modest progress in improving police accountability in Maryland, but much is still to be done. But at least those ambitions face considerable opposition. What can you say when government reforms are obvious, opposition almost non-existent, the consequences uncontroversial and yet a truly comprehensive review and rewrite of the rules takes years and years?
Residents of Anne Arundel County may well have done a double-take when they read about how the county’s police department this month formally made substantial changes to the manner in which its officers provide protection to the county executive in the wake of the John Leopold scandal. Mr. Leopold, as readers may well recall, abused his authority in expecting officers in his security detail to run all manner of personal errands for him, from collecting contributions to his political campaign to emptying his urine catheter bag three times per day. It all came out at trial — nearly eight years ago when he was convicted of two counts of misconduct. Anne Arundel is on its third county executive since then. How is it possible that the county is just now getting around to rewriting the rules from top to bottom to make sure such behavior never happens again?
That’s a question probably best posed to those successor county executives as the department (and anyone else paying attention) has recognized the problem for years. Indeed, there have been some piecemeal changes with revisions to the rules governing how security teams operate in 2010, 2014, 2015 and twice in 2016. Yet, as first reported by the Capital Gazette, Deputy Police Chief William Lowry conducted the first truly comprehensive review of the matter just this summer and from his findings wrote new procedures that ban officers from doing personal or political work for the county executive. The new rules, which went into effect this month, explicitly warn security detail members not to install yard signs on behalf of the county executive or dig up dirt on his or her opposition, as Mr. Leopold, apparently, directed be done regarding Carl Snowden, the longtime civil rights activist and former Annapolis alderman. This should have been obvious when Mr. Leopold was county executive from 2006 to 2013. Now, it’s written policy.
That it took his long to adopt these sweeping changes is, at best, disappointing. Perhaps those who held office over the last seven years simply believed a few tweaks were all that was necessary. Or perhaps they had more pressing concerns for the department. But if one person in office can abuse power in all manner of ways, why can’t the next or the one after that? This is a question that has drawn some attention nationally given some of the more head-turning decisions of President Donald Trump, including, most recently, his rewarding of political allies with pardons. Ordering someone to empty a catheter bag would seem small potatoes compared to tossing around get-out-of-jail free cards to convicted murderers (as President Trump recently provided four Blackwater security guards who gunned down innocent civilians in Baghdad). Abuse of power is hardly unique to D.C.
Kudos to Mr. Snowden and others in the county’s civil rights movement for pushing for this complete review of the police department’s actions during Mr. Leopold’s tenure and for a rewrite of policy. A nod also to Mr. Lowry who was serving as acting chief when the review was undertaken. As Mr. Lowry observes in his Dec. 14 memorandum to Mr. Snowden, the actions by police during the Leopold years — including the compilation of a dossier against Mr. Snowden — amounted to a “travesty” that cannot be tolerated. The purpose of security detail members is not to be “drivers” or to “keep county executives happy” but to protect an individual against harm, he wrote. Surely this kind of broad and transparent approach to how police do their job in the narrow arena of executive protection is exactly what’s needed when it comes to the much broader issue of police brutality, discriminatory behavior, oversight and accountability.
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.