The long road to establishing two state-mandated panels to provide public oversight to local law enforcement continued in Calvert County Tuesday evening as citizens — in person and virtually the internet — participated in a town hall meeting.
Both venues provided plenty of discourse on Calvert’s push to be fully compliant with a controversial state law — the Maryland Police Accountability Act — by next June. To do that, the county must establish a police accountability board and an administrative charging committee.
The state legislation, which had been in the works for years, gained momentum after an incident in 2020 that occurred in Minnesota, when an African American man died in police custody. One of the officers involved was subsequently convicted for the death of the man, George Floyd.
Commissioner President Earl F. “Buddy” Hance (R) told those attending the in-person meeting at the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Community Center in Prince Frederick that while the requirements for the panels are spelled out in the state legislation, the size and demographics for appointees is the responsibility of local governments.
For that reason, the Calvert commissioners opted to hold the session and receive public feedback.
Of the police accountability board, Hance declared, “If this board doesn’t have joint ownership between county government and the citizens, it’s useless.”
Memberships of both panels will ideally reflect the county’s racial gender and cultural diversity, the draft resolution states.
“This is something we can’t afford to get wrong,” said John Norris, county attorney, who moderated the meeting. “It’s not a done deal.”
Norris and Hance both explained the current proposal for starting the boards was drafted by former county commissioner Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins, who resigned from the board in June. Hutchins, a former Maryland secretary of police and former commander of the state police academy, recommended that the accountability board’s chair should be a retired law enforcement officer.
Many speakers were not in agreement that law enforcement retirees should have a seat at the table.
Duane Rager, the current chairman of the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee, said the current proposal should be “drastically revised” and the membership “should reflect diversity.”
“This is to be a citizen-heavy board,” said Malcolm Funn of Solomons, adding that the proposed makeup of the advisory committee “looks like it’s taking authority out of the hands of citizens.”
“No one can sit in judgment of his own case,” Solomons resident Len Zuza stated, in making the argument for not tasking retired law enforcement with rendering decisions impacting officers who receive complaints.
Michael Kent, the president of Calvert’s NAACP chapter, said people afraid to complain to the police come to air their grievances with his organization.
“The cases we get are not that complicated,” said Kent, who explained the reports usually deal with allegations of aggressive tactics applied at traffic stops and warrant-related searches. Kent said traffic stops involving African American and other minority motorists are reportedly prolonged and sometimes lead to “body cavity searches.”
When the homes of local African Americans are the subject of search warrants, “searches are done early in the morning, getting people out of bed,” said Kent. Women are sometimes handcuffed while naked and children are made to stay outdoors, regardless of the weather, while their homes are searched, he stated.
“Not technical things, just right and wrong,” Kent said.
Lifelong county resident Lisa Mackall claimed local law enforcement officers follow her “because I drive a certain type of vehicle. Something is broken and needs to be fixed.”
Mackall said the advisory board should represent “all generations.”
Naquita Coates of Huntingtown spoke about what she called “the climate of Calvert County. I have never seen a place that has more cops than Calvert County.”
Coates said as a young African American she doesn’t feel safe in the county.
There were also comments made during the meeting by police officers active and retired. In response to comments that citizen applicants shouldn’t be subject to background checks, Sgt. Tom Phelps of the Calvert sheriff’s office said all deputies go through such a vetting process and so should panel members “if you’re going to pass judgment on someone.”
“Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop,” said Cpl. Nick DeFelice, who is president of the Calvert Fraternal Order of Police. He noted that Calvert’s sheriff’s deputies all wear body cameras and go through frequent training.
“We would like to work with you so we have the best board available,” DeFelice told the meeting-goers.
County native and retired police officer Alphonso Hawkins said he does not agree with the draft proposal’s “limiting the pool” of who would be eligible to serve on the advisory board.
“I hope we can reach agreement to make these boards come together to work for the citizens,” said Hawkins, who asserted there are impartial law enforcement officers who work in their department’s internal affairs office rendering impartial judgment on other officers.
“Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Hawkins. “Move forward with an open mind.”
One virtual caller, identified as Bucky Wells, declared, “I don’t think we need a Calvert County police accountability board.” He added that the panels would be “staffed by a bunch of amateurs.”
“We’re not going to come up with something that everybody’s going to like,” Hance said.
The commissioner president said county government staff was distributing a survey to citizens to obtain further input on establishing the police-related boards. Hance added that the results of the survey is expected to revealed to the commissioners early next month.