County Commissioner Explains Divisive Police Comments

County Commissioner Explains Divisive Police Comments
“My statements regarding the potential volatility of those displaying symptoms of PTSD were made in reference to one specific situation: when the U.S. Capital was breached on January 6, 2021, and people died,” said Commissioner Diana Purnell. File photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Comments made by a local elected official during a recent conference in Ocean City sparked criticism from some of her peers this week.

During the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) conference in Ocean City, Worcester County Commissioner Diana Purnell participated in the MACo Large Counties Coalition’s annual breakfast meeting. Her comments regarding law enforcement, reported by Maryland Matters, drew criticism from Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli as well as Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting this week.

“I am appalled by the comments made during the Maryland Association of Counties conference earlier this week by Commissioner Diana Purnell about law enforcement officers and military veterans,” read an initial statement Bertino shared on social media. “To state, as she did, that combat military veterans who join law enforcement agencies are ‘here to kill,’ articulates a hate that has no place in public discourse, especially from an elected official.”

During a talk on police reform, Maryland Matters reported Purnell called for open communication with police and said people often told her she was too hard on law enforcement. She also noted that a lot of officers were veterans.

“… I’m gonna tell you, the thing that scares me the most about any police department are those policemen that come back from war zones and they are here to kill,” she said in the Aug. 20 article. “If you think I’m a little off base, look what happened on January 6th.”

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While none of Worcester County’s other commissioners were present during the discussion, they were quick to voice concern when learning of her comments. Bertino and Bunting issued a joint statement this week.

“To suggest that combat veterans who serve in law enforcement are “killers” is an affront to every man and woman who has worn, and currently wears, a military uniform in service to our country,” the statement reads. “Such incendiary comments debase dedicated professionals and diminish the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families. It’s discouraging when such comments are made by ordinary citizens. When such comments are proffered by an elected official of this county, we are all diminished. There is no place in public discourse for assailing the reputations of the officers who day and night work to ensure the safety of each of us living in Berlin, Ocean City, Ocean Pines, Snow Hill, Pocomoke, Bishopville, Whaleyville, Stockton, Girdletree and everywhere else in our county. They deserve respect not rancor.”

They noted that Purnell was entitled to express her opinion.

“Free speech is a fundamental liberty cherished by all Americans,” Bertino and Bunting wrote. “But let’s not forget that because of the service of the many men and women who have answered the call of duty to our communities and to our nation, our rights are protected. It is our hope that upon reflection, Commissioner Purnell realizes that the effect of her comments makes it difficult to realize the great promise of our community. Denigrating the motivations of those sworn to protect and serve weakens the bonds that make a community strong and resilient. Initiating a positive dialogue would have more productively advanced discussion on the concerns Mrs. Purnell believes need to be addressed.”

Crisafulli said he was “extremely disappointed” with Purnell’s comments, which he believes unfairly disparaged officers and veterans. He said he was thankful for the service of all veterans and law enforcement officers across the nation.

“They are true everyday heroes who sacrifice their lives for the freedoms we all enjoy,” he said.

Crisafulli said those heroes exemplified courage and honor.

“The statements that were made by Commissioner Purnell regarding law enforcement and our brave veterans, who have sacrificed so much from our nation to our local communities, are certainly concerning,” he said. “The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office is honored to have 16 current personnel, totaling 231 years of military service to our nation, on staff. These types of statements, toward law enforcement officers and our veterans, deteriorate the ongoing efforts of our law enforcement personnel, in all of our communities. There is an expectation that any statements that are made by one of our local leaders, be based on facts.”

In response, Purnell on Wednesday said her comments were taken out of context. She attempted to clarify what she said during the MACo breakfast. She said she was aware of staffing shortages at local law enforcement agencies and that her comments were not meant to discourage veterans from serving those agencies.

“My statements regarding the potential volatility of those displaying symptoms of PTSD were made in reference to one specific situation: when the U.S. Capital was breached on January 6, 2021, and people died,” she said, noting that court records confirmed that a disproportionate number of those arrested for their alleged actions at the Capital are active and former military personnel.

She added that her statement was not an indictment of veterans but rather was tied to concerns about veterans who weren’t receiving adequate mental health services.

“It is vital to communicate that, while the recently adopted Senate Bill 71 (Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021) expands on policing standards that require increased access to mental health services, these are all unfunded mandates,” she said. “This short-sighted bill is one of the primary reasons that during the MACo panel I also voiced my staunch opposition to calls to defund the very police agencies that are struggling to meet the growing demand for services in the face of shrinking budgets.”

She reiterated her belief in communication.

“To guarantee access to the medical and mental health services for our brave law enforcement professionals, we have to talk to one another,” she said. “We have to keep the lines of communication open, so that we can determine how best to fund these needs. By doing so, we will secure the health and vitality of our public safety professionals and our communities.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.