SNOW HILL – County leaders discussed use of force and police training with local law enforcement officials this week.
On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners met with Sheriff Matt Crisafulli, Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy Director John Moses and representatives of various other law enforcement agencies to talk about current practices following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Officials assured the commissioners that practices were in place in Maryland to ensure officers acted appropriately.
“The death of Mr. Floyd is deeply disturbing and should be of concern to all Americans,” Crisafulli said. “The officers’ actions are inconsistent with the training and protocols of our profession. When we look at incidents in other states, we must understand that each state has different standards for hiring, training and certifying police officers. In Maryland, we have some of the highest standards for training and selection.”
Moses said that in Maryland, law enforcement agencies constantly evolved in response to incidents across the country. He said in the mid-1990s the state stopped endorsing the “knee on the neck” restraint and instead instructed officers to put a knee across a suspect’s back where it doesn’t go across the spine.
“But what’s more important than anything, those officers are now trained to assess the person’s health and get him immediately off his belly and off his stomach to a standing or prone position to be able to assess him further,” Moses said. “It’s their responsibility.”
According to Moses officers only had to use force 2% of the time.
“The whole goal, what we train at the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy, is voluntary compliance,” he said. “We’re trying to train these officers with verbal skills to get voluntary compliance. Voluntary compliance is a lot better than trying to go hands on. There’s a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on verbal skills and de-escalation techniques throughout the county.”
Commissioner Diana Purnell said her concern was that most of the incidents that made the news nationally were related to African Americans.
Moses interrupted to say that last year, more white males were killed than African Americans.
“Where’s the problem in Maryland?” he said. “We haven’t had those incidents in Maryland because of the training.”
He said that Maryland mandated 700 hours of academy training but its academies all actually included closer to 950 hours of training. He said states like Georgia and Minnesota required significantly fewer academy hours.
“The training hours they spend in those states, it’s pennies compared to what we do,” he said.
Purnell said that just because there was training didn’t mean there weren’t issues in Maryland. She added that white suspects who’d killed multiple people were often arrested without incident while the arrests of African Americans and Hispanic people went less smoothly.
“When they’re apprehended, they’re jacked up,” she said. “They end up a lot of them being killed. Maybe that’s not happening in Maryland but it’s happening.”
She asked if academy students were being trained to look beyond color.
“I’m a woman of color and I know that I’m weaponized because of my color,” she said.
She said she was sure that local police were doing a great job but that as an African American she was concerned.
“I’m out a lot by myself,” she said. “I have been right out on (Route) 50 at the stoplight, young men, sometimes young women, will roll up beside you. They blow their horn, they give me the finger, they call you all kinds of names looking for a reaction.”
Moses said she was right but said he stressed to his students at the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy that their color, nationality, sexual preference and other differences didn’t matter.
“We are here for one thing only,” he said. “We take an oath to serve everybody that God has placed on this earth fairly and impartially.”
Purnell said that institutional racism could still be a problem.
“I don’t know how you get it out or what you do,” she said. “I’m very passionate about this because I’ve had it in my family. I’ve had it in my friends. I’ve seen older people doing nothing, they have nasty attitudes. It should not happen that way.”
Commissioner Ted Elder asked about the criteria for use of deadly force. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser answered by acknowledging that there were strong feelings on the topic.
“I’d like to start by saying that I think that my experience has shown me that law enforcement in Worcester County is incredibly coordinated, collaborative, communicative,” she said, adding that local chiefs were all in attendance for Tuesday’s discussion.
She told Purnell honest discussions would continue.
“I understand there are a lot of feelings and those are justified at times,” she said. “With the things we see on the news, they’re even heightened. That’s why when cases come to me, I have to have the entire complete investigation. I’m not going to comment on cases that occurred outside my jurisdiction.”
Heiser acknowledged that discussion of police training was important.
“But I also think based on the types of commentary I’m seeing in the police reports, an overwhelming number of cases recently during the month of June, that mutual respect and understanding and training and education, that’s a two-way street for law enforcement,” she said. “It requires education and training of everybody that’s involved in the situation and it requires the honest conversation to make that happen.”
She said local police agencies offered numerous opportunities for community education, including coffee with cops programs and a citizens police academy.
“We try to do as much community education as we can but if citizens don’t avail themselves of those opportunities then they’re missing out on being able to understand the life of a police officer, the life of a prosecutor, the life of a law enforcement family…,” she said. “Mutual respect and understanding can only happen when the information is possessed by both sides. I want to use this opportunity before you to highlight the amount of work we’ve already done in our communities and we’ll continue to do that.”
Elder said he still wanted to understand the use of force.
“It’s great for you to look backwards on something, some situation, but if one of the officers is in a situation somewhere, they have to know by training when they can use that deadly force or how much force they need to use,” he said.
Moses said it was almost a last resort.
“You have to realize that a police officer that has a gun pulled on him has maybe 2.5 seconds to make a decision,” Moses said. “A court … has nine months to review that, and all the media has nine months to review that… That police officer—white black, purple or green—has a right to life also. He has a right to go home too. He has to make that split-second decision whether or not to do that.”
He outlined the various training procedures academy students went through, which include psychological evaluations, background checks, firearms lessons and more.
“I can’t get in and divulge all the tactics but all those things are important to shape a police officer’s choice to use force or not,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said the Maryland State Police seemed to have a successful training program and asked if it could be replicated locally. Moses said that while a live-in training program would be great he wasn’t allowed to offer it on a college campus.
Commissioner Bud Church thanked law enforcement officials for their efforts.
“Most of the public have no idea what you put up with,” he said, adding that there could be a “bad cop” just as easily as there could be a bad county commissioner.
Moses said local chiefs were diligent.
“I can guarantee you in Worcester County that if there’s a bad cop in any of these chiefs’ ranks they’re gone in a heartbeat,” he said.
He added that roughly five out of every 25 students in an academy class was released.
“It’s not because we’re trying to lose people it’s because they don’t meet the standard that society has placed upon us,” he said. “That standard is high.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino encouraged local law enforcement officials to share information regarding the citizens police academy so that residents would become more aware of it.
Purnell said she appreciated the efforts of local police but continued to be passionate about race issues.
“I’d be lying to myself and I would be lying to you if I sat up here and said I’m not concerned because I am,” she said.