I have observed Sheriff Berry since his election in 2014. When he won and became the first African American sheriff in Charles County history, he commented that, “I didn’t run to become the first black sheriff. I ran to make a difference.” Since then, I have seen him often use that line in his public appearances. The problem is he has repeatedly failed to make a difference when given the opportunity.
Sheriff Berry has not made a difference in the diversity of the sheriff’s office. In fact, under his leadership the office has regressed. After six years in office, the sheriff does not have a single sworn officer of color on his command staff. Believe it or not, Berry’s predecessor had more minorities on his command staff. Likewise, six years later, the diversity of the rank and file of the sheriff’s office does not come close to reflecting our population’s diversity.
Sheriff Berry, despite his public statements welcoming oversight or review of excessive use of force claims, is opposing a citizen review board that would be staffed by average citizens and be independent from any police agency, impartial and transparent. Instead of making a difference and welcoming a properly organized citizen review board, Berry has made a regressive proposal that would result in no real oversight. The sheriff has proposed to use the long out of use Board of Public Safety (BPS) to review excessive use of force cases.
The BPS was not designed to review use of force issues. It was created to act as a mediation tool between the sheriff and commissioners. When in operation the BPS dealt with salary, promotions and other personnel or pay issues. We all know that you must use the right tool for any job. The BPS is the wrong tool for this job.
As designed by the statute, the BPS would not be impartial either. Two members of the five-member BPS are elected county commissioners.
Question: How could these two commissioners work in the county’s interest while at the same time work to bolster the case of a person that could end up suing the county for injuries suffered at the hands of a county police officer? Answer: They could not. That is a typical conflict of interest that would destroy the BPS’s impartiality.
Another failing: the BPS would not operate independently from the sheriff’s office. The law that creates the BPS expressly states that the BPS is part of the sheriff’s office. I hope everyone can see how that destroys any true BPS independence from the very police agency the BPS would be overseeing.
So why would the sheriff propose review of excessive force claims by a body that is neither independent nor impartial? The only conclusion can be that he knows the BPS would provide ineffectual oversight and, contrary to his public statements, he simply does not want his agency to be subject to oversight.
Charles County citizens should not be fooled by the sheriff’s proposal or statements. In Charles County, civilian oversight has always been opposed by the police. And it is clear, despite his pretense in proposing a BPS re-launch, that Sheriff Berry is also opposed to civilian oversight. It would be better if he had the courage to be honest and forthcoming about his true position instead of engaging in cheap political gamesmanship. It just reveals that Sheriff Berry is not the instrument of positive change we hoped he would be. If he did run to make a difference, he is failing himself and his community.