Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is loathed and loved after Down syndrome death


Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, left, chats with supporter Rudy Routzahn, of Frederick, at the Jefferson Ruritan Club Carnival on July 22 in Jefferson, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Ever since a fatal movie theater encounter between three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies and a young man with Down syndrome, the department’s Facebook page has become an attack zone, with much of the ire aimed at one man: Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins.

“Why has the sheriff not resigned?” one poster demands to know. Another calls Jenkins’s deputies “dirty murdering thugs.” A simple update about a coming community meeting elicited this reply: “Will he be murdering any disabled kids?”

But at the Jefferson Ruritan Club carnival one late-July evening, the tough-talking sheriff can’t walk far without a “Hey, Chuck” coming his way. There is no hostility, no condemnation, just handshakes and back-pats amid a strong aroma of funnel cakes.

Along the midway, the people who have twice voted the 57-year-old Republican into office make it clear they aren’t troubled by a federal investigation into the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, 26, who collapsed Jan. 12 while being forcibly removed from the Regal Westview cinema by off-duty deputies working security. His death came two days after two other deputies killed a 19-year-old home-invasion suspect during a raid on the apartment he shared with his mother.

Jenkins says his deputies did nothing wrong — a view shared by many of the folks he encountered that July night in this rapidly suburbanizing county.

Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins discusses immigration law enforcement policy. (Youtube/FrederickNewsPost)

“Thanks for all you do to keep the county safe,” one woman tells him near the bingo booth.

“We are blessed to have him as our sheriff,” another supporter declares.

Jenkins, with his buzz cut and stocky frame, is a homegrown sheriff. Wandering the carnival in shorts and a polo shirt, he could be the guy calling bingo numbers. He grew up in this still-rural county 60 miles from Washington and married a local girl. If he doesn’t know everyone in line for the Ferris wheel, there is a decent chance he knows their parents.

“I guess I’m the Kevin Bacon of sheriffs,” Jenkins says, invoking the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where anyone in acting can be connected to the movie star.

But the county he polices with such easy familiarity is changing. Frederick’s population swelled by 20 percent in the past decade to 233,000 people, according to the 2010 Census, making it the third-fastest-growing county in Maryland. Many of the newcomers are Hispanics and Asians, who might not support the sheriff’s embrace of the federal government’s controversial 287(g) immigration program, which deputizes local police to identify illegal immigrants involved in crime.

Jenkins, the only law enforcement officer in Maryland to participate, has helped deport hundreds of illegal immigrants, making him a hero of the tea party movement. He has given full-throated speeches to conservative audiences decrying “the redistribution of our own wealth” as the country faces “economic and social collapse.”

Jenkins, who ran unopposed in 2010, hates the beating that his department’s reputation has taken in recent months.

“It hurts me personally to see the agency run through the wringer like this,” he says. But any criticism of him probably isn’t local, he says, and probably isn’t based on facts.

“I haven’t tried to create a reputation of being a hard-ass,” he says. “I police the way I think the people of this county want me to police.”

Beating out the dogcatcher

Jenkins was 33 and working in logistics for a satellite company when he decided he wanted to become a sheriff’s deputy.

“I wanted to do something more rewarding,” says Jenkins, a weekend hunter, gun enthusiast and volunteer firefighter. “That was law enforcement.”

He worked a few years in patrol before being promoted to investigator. Among the cases he solved: the home invasion and rape of a young woman on Halloween. People in the community regularly called to give him tips.

When James W. Hagy decided not to run for a fourth term as sheriff in 2006, Jenkins pondered his own candidacy. No deputy had ever been elected sheriff, but he thought a county native who knew the ins and outs of the department could serve Frederick well.

He joined a crowded primary field that included the county’s popular dogcatcher, Harold Domer, and won despite being heavily outspent.

After winning the general election, Jenkins put more deputies on the streets by pulling them off desk jobs, increasing his department’s presence without increasing the budget. In fact, he began returning money to the county’s coffers.

He also went after undocumented immigrants, as he promised during his campaign.

And he became the people’s sheriff, showing up at community meetings, funerals, carnivals, block parties. He emcees gun raffles. His phone number is listed. Recently, Jenkins negotiated a property-line dispute among neighbors.

“People know he’s there for them and that he’s listening,” said Stephen Gottlieb, chairman of the local Republican Party, a position Jenkins held when he was a deputy.

Jenkins has fortified his popularity among conservatives with fiery speeches at tea party rallies. Typing “sheriff chuck jenkins tea party” into YouTube’s search box produces his greatest hits.

He attacks President Obama, warning that the country is on “the threshold of a socialist government” and that the president’s health-care overhaul will “force a collapse of our economy.” Amnesty for immigrants in the United States illegally could “bring this country to its knees.”

Jenkins is nonetheless sensitive to criticism that he is hostile or indifferent to people who aren’t like him. At the carnival, Dawna Beauchamp walks up to Jenkins and starts giving him guff about his protruding belly. Beauchamp is 33 and developmentally disabled. Jenkins was the pallbearer at her grandfather’s funeral. They joke around. They hug.

Afterward, Jenkins says: “She’s a beautiful, amazing young woman. I’m not indifferent to anyone. I don’t know where people get this stuff.”

Lethal-force controversies

Jenkins’s tenure has been marked by several lethal-force incidents. Not long after he took office, one of his deputies fatally shot a man who was threatening state troopers with a pair of scissors. Jenkins says the deputy was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury and in an internal department review.

A few months earlier, a deputy killed 20-year-old Jarrel Gray with a stun gun after responding to a call about a fight. The deputy, Rudy Torres, shot the stun gun at Gray twice. A jury in a federal civil suit last year found that the deputy did not use excessive force. No damages were awarded. The case is being appealed.

And then there is Brandi, a Taneytown couple’s Labrador retriever. In 2010, a deputy shot Brandi while serving a court order on the son of Roger and Sandra Jenkins (no relation to the sheriff). Brandi barked at the deputies. According to the civil lawsuit brought by the family, deputy Timothy Brooks shot Brandi “without warning.” The bullet entered her leg and exited through her chest.

Brandi lived but is disabled. A jury awarded the family more than $600,000. Their attorney, Cary Hansel, credited Sheriff Jenkins for instituting training for dealing with dogs, but he said the sheriff’s office was dismissive of the family.

“Instead of an immediate public apology and attempt to reach an accord with the family,” Hansel said, “they took an approach of, ‘We did nothing wrong and will fight this to the bitter end.’ ”

Jenkins and the county have appealed the jury’s decision. “We thought the monetary award was outrageous,” he said, “and for God’s sake, the dog is still alive.”

The deaths of two young men at the hands of deputies are likely to generate more lawsuits against the sheriff’s department.

Saylor’s death was ruled a homicide by asphyxia by the state Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, but a Frederick County grand jury decided that no criminal charges were warranted. The Justice Department is investigating whether Saylor’s civil rights were violated during the encounter at the movie theater, and Saylor’s family has hired a lawyer.

So has the family of Daniel Vail, who was killed in his Mount Airy apartment after deputies set off a flash-bang device and shot at Vail 18 times. The deputies say Vail pointed a shotgun at them; Vail’s mother and her attorney have questioned that account and contend that there was no need to storm the apartment.

Jenkins has not punished the deputies in either incident. “There was no reason to,” he said. “We did it right. These were truly, honest-to-God unfortunate, terribly tragic situations.”

To Jenkins, the lawyers “are in this for the jack. It’s all about the money for them.”

Blaine Young, president of the county board of commissioners, supports Jenkins and his department’s use of force.

“If people get in trouble and would just do what the officers say, we wouldn’t have any incidents,” Young says.

At the carnival, several people ask Jenkins when the media would start laying off of him. Editorials and columns in the Frederick News-Post and The Washington Post have criticized his department and leadership. Roy Meachum, a retired News-Post columnist, recently blogged that it was time for Jenkins to go.

Jerry Midula, a Jefferson resident selling instant lottery tickets, says that Jenkins is being unfairly targeted by journalists who want to take him down.

“The press doesn’t know what’s going on,” says Midula, 70. “The investigation that’s going on now, they are making him look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing.”

A test of public opinion

Jenkins is running for reelection next year. Although nobody has announced plans to oppose him, there is buzz in political circles that retired Frederick city deputy chief Kevin Grubb will run as an unaffiliated candidate. Grubb did not return a request for comment.

Karl Bickel, a Jenkins critic and a former senior member of the sheriff’s department, said he is retiring from a Justice Department post in December and will make a decision about running then. However, Bickel recently changed his party registration from unaffiliated to Democrat, an indication he plans to run.

Kai Hagen, a former Democrat on the county board of commissioners, said Jenkins will still be tough to beat. “My impression is that all these issues together have, at most so far, put only a small crack in an otherwise solidly positive view of the sheriff among his supporters,” Hagen said.

Jenkins said he thinks opponents will use the Saylor and Vail incidents as ammunition.

“That’s a shame for the Saylor family, and that’s a shame for the Vail family,” the sheriff says. “They’re going to have to relive all this just so people can get at Chuck Jenkins. ”

At the carnival, Jenkins looks out at a crowd listening to an oldies band and says he works for the people sitting in their lawn chairs. If he had his way, he would be sheriff for life. But he also knows Frederick is changing.

“The people of this county will tell me in the next election whether they still approve of me,” he says. “We’ve got another generation before guys like me will be a thing of the past.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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