Recent national events have put law enforcement agencies nationwide in the spotlight, with some groups demanding a change in response tactics, or even a scaling back of funding for police departments.
The three sheriffs of Southern Maryland — Mike Evans (R) of Calvert, Tim Cameron (R) of St. Mary’s and Troy Berry (D) of Charles — met last Friday to discuss potential changes to training procedures and operation policies. The session was held at the College of Southern Maryland's Prince Frederick campus. While members of the press were not invited into any of the discussions at the “sheriffs’ summit,” Evans, Cameron and Berry did answer questions from the media afterward.
Cameron noted that the sheriffs serve as the board of directors for the Southern Maryland Criminal Justice Academy. The facility in Welcome, in western Charles County, provides training for the region’s prospective deputies.
“We thought it was an important time to address our entry-level training for all our deputies and correctional office and in-service training,” Cameron said. “We focused on some of the questions the community is asking.”
In addition to academy training staff, members of each agency’s internal affairs office also offered input. The training staff provided demonstrations of what “use of force” policies are currently being implemented.
“It gave us an opportunity to address any gaps,” Cameron said. “We feel very comfortable that there are no gaps.”
“We want to make sure we are moving our agencies forward, making sure we have a unified ‘use of force’ policy,” Berry said. “We are going to take all the information we gleaned, go back and make some enhancements to our entry-level training and also make some enhancements to our individual policies, rules and procedures of our respective agencies."
Cameron said that the region’s sheriff’s offices use “shoulder holds” as opposed to “chokeholds” when physical force is warranted to effect restraint. “The community has expressed concerns about chokeholds.”
Cameron added that academy instructors teach a variety of “control techniques,” but do not teach chokeholds.
Evans said although academy graduates have been taught the restraint technique, shoulder pins are used “very rarely among all three agencies in the last several years.”
“We teach our officers emotional intelligence,” Berry said. “We want to make sure we deescalate things. An officer’s presence is a command presence.”
“There’s a high consequence with going ‘hands on,’” Cameron said, explaining that there is a potential for injuries to the officer as well as the individual who needs to be restrained.
The sheriffs were also asked if they believed any racial biases among the ranks were prevalent, as has been alleged among the men and women of the Prince George’s County Police Department.
“I don’t believe there are any racial biases among officers — deputies and correctional officers — within the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office,” Cameron said. Evans and Berry concurred that their agencies were also not afflicted with such a situation.
The trio was also asked to comment on the recent calls for “defunding” police agencies, that is, reallocating public funds for strategies that would address problems that lead to police action.
Evans said such proactivity is already being done within the public school systems. He noted schools are now staffing more mental health professionals to address behavioral problems. “They [schools] are getting to the problem earlier,” Evans said.
“We have always been on board in reference to problem-solving courts like mental health courts, drug courts,” Berry said. “We have been ahead of the curve. Now we have to go about funding those initiatives. Where does the money come from?” Berry said the latter question needs to be addressed in conversations among law enforcement leaders and county and state government officials.
“We all have to be introspective and look at our operation and say, ‘Do we have money that would be bettered served for our community elsewhere?'” Cameron asked. He then answered that question with another question, “Who is a better responder than us?”
Cameron noted that local law enforcement officers in all three jurisdictions respond to such societal problems as domestic violence and drug overdoses. He added that deputies are trained, at great expense, in “crisis intervention and mental health first aid. It’s a fair discussion, but I don’t think one size fits all. We solve problems and help people, that’s the police mission. The community has to decide how they want to be policed.”
According to the sheriffs, while the summit’s discussions focused on deescalation in the field, the topic of crowd control was not on the agenda. When asked if the subject of tear gas deployment was broached, they stated it was not.
Evans, who has taken some criticism from community members for ordering the deployment of tear gas to disperse a crowd at a Black Lives Matter march in Calvert on June 1, declared, “I have honestly been getting more compliments and ‘thank yous’ for keeping our county safe. The good outweighs the bad as far as I’m concerned.”