Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler on Thursday hosted a roundtable bringing together several law enforcement agencies and local community leaders to discuss issues of race and policing, both here and nationwide.
Gahler said the breakfast meeting was an extension of discussions which took place during his campaign last year and during his first months in office, regarding tensions between police and the public across the U.S.
“A lot of the discussion was about the things we’re seeing around the country, and how the reputation of the police has suffered,” said Gahler.
In additional to Gahler and other Sheriff’s Office personnel, present for the meeting were representatives from the Maryland State Police, municipal police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, county government, several local churches, and others.
Gahler said he does not believe the county faces any significant racial issues at the moment, and described the meeting as a chance to lay groundwork for continued communication.
Among the topics discussed was the hiring and training process of Harford County sheriff’s deputies, including efforts to diversify the demographics of deputies hired.
“We don’t even know if there is a problem yet, but we wanted to discuss how we can improve the process to better reflect the demographics of the county,” he said.
According to data presented by Gahler at the meeting, among the 576 employees of the Sheriff’s Office this month, 499 are white, (81 percent of all employees), 63 are black (12.7 percent), and 14 are members of other races. Among law enforcement officers, 266 are white, 13 are black, and eight are of other races. Census data from 2013 found that, of 249,415 residents, 81.1 percent identified as white, while 13.2 percent identified as black.
Gahler said he also detailed “how we police our police,” and the methods by which the agency investigates officer-involved shootings. The sheriff said the topic was a concern for him following the April riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Gahler said he believed the charges brought by prosecutors against six Baltimore police officers in that incident came too quickly, and before a full investigation.
“We saw in Baltimore that there was not much public trust in that investigation, and that’s a concern,” he said. “The expediency of that concerns me, because it may be that the intent [of the charges] was to quell, not convict.”
Harford County has seen several police-involved shootings in the past few years, including an incident in the early morning hours of July 25 in which a Joppa man was shot by deputies and a Maryland State Police trooper after firing at officers.
Gahler said groundwork between law enforcement and the community they serve would be tested in the event of an officer-involved shooting along racial lines, and recalled a two-year-old incident in which a Bel Air man was fatally shot by a deputy at a Rock Spring snowball stand.
“What we see across the country is, we’re one incident away,” Gahler said. “I would hope the community would extend us the time to conduct a proper investigation.”
“Look at the snowball stand incident,” he added. “Had the race been different, we may have made national headlines. Something could happen tonight or tomorrow, God forbid, and we could be putting that [relationship with the community] to the test.”
At the roundtable, Gahler announced several upcoming programs he hoped would further improve his agency’s ties to the community:
–The Sheriff’s Office in coming weeks will prepare videos to be shown at driver’s ed classes which explain to teens how to interact with police during a traffic stop. “To my knowledge, no one has ever trained [drivers] on what to do when you’re pulled over,” he said. “There’s a lot of misconception about what can happen.”
–The “Behind the Badge” series, a joint project between the Sheriff’s Office and the Harford Cable Network, will be revived in an effort to educate the public about the agency and its deputies.