Robert McCartney: Prince George's, Md., sheriff takes scary position on misguided raid

The Washington Post's Robert McCartney discusses Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson, and his decision to run for county executive.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Since the day his officers gunned down two pet Labrador dogs and handcuffed two innocent people for hours in a drug raid in 2008 at the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson has clung to what seems like a preposterous notion that his men did nothing wrong.

Voters will now get a chance to pass judgment on that, as Jackson confirmed to political associates last week that he's running for county executive.

Don't be surprised, though, if Jackson suffers only modest political damage from the dog-shooting incident. In a crowded Democratic primary in September, he'll be targeting voters who welcome a tough law-and-order candidate. Some are police or other public safety officers who know from experience that executing search warrants is a messy, risky business.

Jackson, who is black, also might benefit from racial sympathies of African Americans who think the Berwyn Heights raid got undue attention because a white family was affected, according to veteran county politicians of both races. He has never counted on support from liberal, largely white communities that have displayed the most outrage over the dogs.

Regardless of how it plays politically, the case remains interesting because Jackson might actually believe his officers behaved properly -- in the sense that they acted as they typically do. That is plausible and scary.

It's plausible because there have been other incidents that raised questions about Jackson's officers. In September a jury awarded $261,000 to a Greenbelt woman who said she was pepper-sprayed and punched by sheriff's deputies after they forced their way into her apartment to serve an arrest warrant on a man who wasn't there. A couple in Accokeek has accused the sheriff's office of killing their dog in 2007 after going to their home in error while seeking to serve a warrant on an address up the street.

Mayor Cheye Calvo and his family have filed a lawsuit alleging behavior pointing to a "rogue, paramilitary culture" within the sheriff's department. They hope the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division will mount a "pattern and practice" investigation in the federal inquiry that's been opened.

Jackson's position is scary because it would imply that his officers are routinely overstepping what I think most people would regard as reasonable constraints on how law officers conduct themselves. In the Berwyn Heights case, there's considerable evidence that the officers did insufficient research, burst into the house without an appropriate warrant and shot the dogs immediately even though Calvo's mother-in-law, Georgia Porter, who was there, said the animals posed no threat.

The sheriff's officers raided the house July 29, 2008, after learning that a box of marijuana was being shipped to Calvo's wife, Trinity Tomsic. Calvo, Tomsic and Porter were cleared of any wrongdoing after the county determined they were victims of a drug-smuggling scheme in which drug-filled packages addressed to unsuspecting recipients were intercepted by a FedEx deliveryman.

The county police department, which helped plan the botched incursion but is separate from the sheriff's office, finally acknowledged last month that one of its officers committed an unspecified "procedural violation" and has been disciplined. Jackson, however, has acknowledged nothing.

Referring to an internal sheriff's investigation that found no wrongdoing, Jackson said in June that the findings "are consistent with what I've felt all along: My deputies did their jobs to the fullest extent of their abilities." He has not responded to numerous requests to comment for this column.

Calvo said of Jackson: "It'd be one thing as an elected official to say, 'We made some mistakes; we're going to see about fixing them.' His reaction, to not really consider that it was possible that anything wrong was done, is really frightening."

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