Over the last few years, dozens of complaints made against Harford County Sheriff’s deputies and investigated by the agency’s internal affairs bureau have been sustained, and resulted in responses ranging from re-training to disciplinary action.
But none of those cases were the example chosen to present to the Citizens Police Academy class May 8. Strangely, the case chosen was a rare example of the door swinging both ways.
Det. Ken Perry of the agency’s Office of Professional Standards detailed a case in which a citizen complained after he was stopped by a deputy on Route 23 for speeding. The citizen claimed he was driving the speed limit of 55 mph until the deputy’s vehicle slid in very close behind his car, with its lights off. The deputy, so the citizen’s story went, then hit his high beams, causing the driver to panic and accelerate to 85 mph before being pulled over and cited.
Over the course of several, highly detailed pages, the complainant laid out his exact case, including the criminal charges the deputy should face.
The punchline came when Perry showed the dashboard video from the deputy’s vehicle. The citizen’s car blazes past the deputy, obviously speeding. The deputy pulls a U-turn and has to accelerate to gain ground on the other driver before hitting his lights and executing a more-or-less textbook traffic stop, Perry said.
Thanks to the dashboard tape, Perry said the deputy in question was not interviewed during the Office of Professional Standards investigation. But the complainant was, and repeatedly clung to his story, even after detectives knew he was lying and gave him chances to recant.
Ultimately, it was the complainant was himself brought up on a charge of making a false report, and faces a court hearing soon.
Perry said the case was interesting because it began with a complaint that could have had an element of truth to it. Ultimately, he said the citizen was only making an accusation in the hopes of getting out of a ticket.
“We don’t want to discourage people from making complaints,” he said. “But this individual was making criminal allegations against a deputy. He didn’t so much cross the line as jump over it and start running.”
Still, it seemed like an odd choice to present to the Citizens Academy, given that complaints with merit are occasionally sustained against Sheriff’s Office employees.
In 2009, the most recent year for which Perry had statistics, the office investigated 68 total cases. In 34 of those cases, the officer acted properly, or the complaint was unfounded; in 21 cases the deputy acted improperly; 10 cases had insufficient evidence to make any determination; in one, a failure of departmental policy was found; and in two cases the deputy in question resigned prior to completion of the investigation.
It’s the job of the three-person Office of Professional Standards to sort through those complaints and determining which ones require internal action and which, like the speeder incident, have no basis in fact.
“We’re not like what you see on TV, we’re really not,” he said.
Nationwide, about sixty percent of complaints against police officers are not sustained by internal investigations, according to Perry. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s department does not investigate differences of opinions or minor infractions and violations which are dealt with by various commanders. However, it does investigate violations of laws, conduct detrimental to the agency, and violations of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Manual of Operations–including violations which occur off-duty.
Any citizen can make a complaint to any officer, Perry said. Complaints are dealt with up the Sheriff’s Office chain of command, with actions or investigations required delegated back down. If the Office of Professional Standards investigates, and sustains a complaint, the deputy will face punishment determined either by the sheriff or by a trial board.
Perry said he has been on all three sides of an internal investigation, having had a complaint against him, having been a witness in another incident, and now investigating complaints. Though he said his office has the respect of the rank and file, Perry admitted he personally gets treated somewhat differently thanks to his job in the agency.
“I have many friends in the Sheriff’s Office…[but] I get treated differently now because I’m in IA,” he said. “It’s the deputies that don’t know me, some of the newer deputies. They don’t like IA, they don’t like talking to them, it’s very stressful.”
In other information presented during the Citizens Academy class:
–Sgt. Ian Loughran detailed the training and tactics used in the Sheriff’s Office emergency driving training. Conducted at the state’s Police and Correctional Training Facility in Sykesville, deputies are instructed in both city-style and high-speed pursuits.
Even for the instructors, it can be a tense experience.
“It is horrible teaching driving,” Loughran said. “I don’t know if any of you have taught your kids to drive; imagine doing that at 100 miles an hour.”
–Lt. Veto Mentzell presented information about the Sheriff’s Office’s hostage negotiation team. Mentzell said the team is responsible for defusing intense situations, most of which crop up with little warning.
Nationwide, he said, 92 percent of hostage situations are emotionally-driven, and 65 percent are unplanned and seemingly irrational, with no intricate master plan as depicted in movies or TV shows. Approximately 91 percent of cases nationally are resolved in nine hours or less, he said, and 90 percent end without the loss of life.
Mentzell’s team includes representatives from the Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments. Each member is chosen through a selection process, and has about 10 years of law enforcement experience.
Members of the team work to determine what a hostage-taker wants, and try to talk him through a narrative, using what Mentzell called “active listening” to try and resolve the situation. The only demands the team will not negotiate on are alcohol or drugs, weapons and ammo, and the presence of people.
Otherwise, each situation is different, he said, and the resolution depends on the subject’s behavior. Though most can be talked into surrender, a tactical response may be necessary if further violence seems likely despite negotiation efforts.
If you are taken hostage, Mentzell said it is crucial to maintain your composure, not be provocative, and be patient. Negotiations can be time-consuming, and your chances of survival increase with time.
Next Week: A look at the agency’s Special Operations Division.