Members of the Frederick County Council pushed Sheriff Chuck Jenkins at a meeting this week on police practices in the wake of police-involved killings of Black Americans in other parts of the country.
Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) invited the sheriff to a council session Tuesday night to address his department’s practices and policies, but the conversation strayed to national issues surrounding police.
The meeting was tense at times and, early on, the discussion turned to a debate on policing across the country. Topics ranged from use of force to racial bias training.
Councilman Kai Hagen (D) and Jenkins (R) disagreed over how to describe the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck until he couldn’t breathe, according to Associated Press reports.
Hagen called Floyd’s death a murder, while Jenkins stopped short of saying so, though he said the way Floyd died was an “egregious, unreasonable, excessive use of force, unnecessary force.”
Jenkins also disagreed that there is systemic racism in policing, while Hagen felt its existence was undeniable.
“Policing practices and policies were called into question in every law enforcement agency in the country, including here locally, were basically, unfairly I think, unfairly blamed and severely scrutinized for what were termed as racial injustices and systemic racism in policing,” Jenkins said.
In a subsequent interview, Jenkins said he believes there are officers in the country who develop biases and prejudices throughout their career. He noted that potential hires to the sheriff’s office are evaluated by a psychiatrist/psychologist to see whether the person has an existing bias or tendency to profile people, so they can be “weeded out” before they are hired.
While Hagen said much of the information Jenkins provided to the council was helpful, he said the sheriff had multiple opportunities to acknowledge systemic racism exists in the country, or Frederick County, but failed to do so.
Council Vice President Michael Blue (R) and Councilman Steve McKay (R), however, said there are racist officers in law enforcement, but that they are not emblematic of greater systemic issues.
“I don’t believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement, I think there are bad people in all professions … Doctors kill people all the time, but we’re not talking about defunding hospitals,” Blue said. “I think there needs to be more respect afforded to law enforcement.”
Jenkins said deputies are taught to treat Frederick County residents the way they’d want their loved ones to be treated, regardless of who they are.
Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) pointed to the number of Black residents FCSO deputies used force against in 2019 — about one-third of use of force incidents — calling it a disparity when compared to the 10.7 percent population of Black residents in the county.
Jenkins cautioned those who examine statistics to consider the individual’s criminality and their propensity to act, rather than other defining factors such as race. He also asked that council members consider what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a firearm and how quickly police need to act.
Jenkins called for increased support of police, in contrast to a call by some groups across the country to “defund police.”
“It shouldn’t be defund police, it should be defend police and fund the police,” Jenkins said.
While some groups across the country call for a ban on chokeholds, Jenkins said Frederick County deputies aren’t trained to use them. The exception for use is a life-or-death struggle, he said.
When deadly force is used, FCSO undergoes a thorough internal administrative review of the incident to see if policies were followed, concurrent with the criminal investigation, which is then handed off to the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office to consider prosecuting.
Each use of force by deputies is “thoroughly reviewed” and documented by the sheriff’s office, according to Jenkins. Out of roughly 132,000 police contacts with the public in 2019, Jenkins said 74 resulted in use of force.
At the meeting, Jenkins and his staff also spoke to anti-discrimination training, militarization of police, no-knock warrants, training on how to interact with people who have developmental disabilities, and the law enforcement accreditation process, among other issues.
Citizens Advisory Committee: What is it?
Council members and the sheriff’s office also discussed the citizens advisory committee, a roughly 10-person body whose members are approved by Jenkins after the committee votes to fill a slot, he said.
Blue currently sits on that committee, and maintains its functions and composition are misunderstood. The committee is meant to be a “sounding board” for the sheriff’s office, and to plan annual banquets and other fundraising events for the sheriff and office, Blue said.
Some have called for greater oversight of Jenkins’ office, but several county officials have stated he is an elected official, governed by the state constitution. Blue said he would not support a committee with more oversight.
Hagen, however, said additional oversight must be independent of the sheriff himself.
“If you’re going to have some level of citizen engagement and oversight, and you want that to be legitimate and meaningful, you can’t be the one to pick the people and establish the terms — that’s just fundamental,” Hagen said. “It’s not an enforcement thing … [but] if he feels so certainly that he’s doing everything with the utmost transparency … why wouldn’t he support an advisory commission that had guaranteed access to certain kinds of information?”
McKay would need to hear more about the nature of the committee, including how it was established. And it could require a change to state law, he added.
“The question starts with the presumption that the committee has an oversight role, and that’s what I don’t know, and I didn’t really hear any indication that it was,” McKay said.
“The sheriff is an elected officer, and so ultimately, the oversight is the ballot,” he added.
Fitzwater suggested during the meeting that more information should be made more easily accessible on how to apply to the committee, who can serve on it and other details.
Blue supported that suggestion but added that the committee itself consists of a diverse group of individuals, representative of the entire Frederick County community.
However, Hagen said the sheriff picking its members is still a core issue.
“If you look around [the country], you can see a variety of different models for how these things are done … but we know there are ways it can be done,” Hagen said.
Jenkins, in an interview, said he does not anticipate making changes to the sheriff’s office training or policies based purely on the council’s feedback from the Tuesday meeting but said the department will continue to try to improve and seek training opportunities.
“No, I don’t think we’re perfect,” Jenkins said, “but I think we do pretty damn well.”