About 75 Charles County sheriff's deputies urged the county commissioners to give them collective bargaining rights Monday night, but their show of strength was overshadowed by an impromptu and sometimes rancorous debate on law enforcement and race.
The exchange arose during a public forum on the county's agenda in the next General Assembly session, when civil rights leaders urged the creation of a citizens panel to review allegations of police misconduct.
Under the proposal, a seven-member panel would examine citizens' allegations of brutality and excessive force, harassment or abusive language by police. The panel would have broad powers to subpoena witnesses and documents.
"You may not see a problem, but our community sees a problem," Wanda Wills Woodland, president of the Charles County branch of the NAACP, told the commissioners. "They feel intimidated to pick up specific forms. . . . Intimidation is very strong in the African American community with the sheriff's department."
Woodland said her group proposed the measure after hearing several reports that minority citizens had been treated roughly by police and that the sheriff's office had done little to help those trying to file complaints.
The Rev. Frederick A. Lancaster, associate minister of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marbury, told the commissioners he often feared driving on county highways after dark.
"If you are an African American in Charles County, you are a target. . . . That's a known fact," Lancaster said.
State Del. Thomas E. Hutchins (R) attended the session along with other members of the county's legislative delegation. Hutchins, a former state trooper, said that throughout his many years of law enforcement in the county, he knew of "no instance where an individual has been targeted." That comment drew muffled hoots of derision from several in the audience.
Sheriff's officials expressed surprise at the complaints and said they would work with African American leaders to smooth out relations. Lt. Dave Williams, who oversees the sheriff's internal affairs department, suggested training front desk personnel to offer better help to complaining citizens.
The review board debate overshadowed the sheriff's deputies' orchestrated show of strength in their attempt to gain full recognition for their union. About 75 deputies drove en masse in 57 squad cars to the Charles County Government Building in La Plata.
The request for the citizens review committee and the deputies' collective bargaining were among three dozen proposals discussed at Monday's public forum. County commissioners will decide which to include in their annual submission to the Maryland General Assembly. Many changes in local laws require approval by the state legislature.
Sheriff's deputies have long agitated privately for the right to direct collective bargaining with the sheriff on wages, benefits, hours, working conditions and other issues. But Monday's proposal by the Charles County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 24 was the first formal request for a change in the law to allow it.
Police and sheriff's departments in most larger counties in Maryland, including Prince George's and Montgomery, have unionized. Maryland State Police officers also have collective bargaining power.
"Unemployment is at an all-time low, and there is a smaller pool of qualified people to draw from," said Charles County FOP President Joseph B. "Buddy" Gibson. "In order to attract and retain qualified individuals, we have to meet industry standards and pay according to what the employees are worth."
The proposed legislation would give sheriff's deputies and civilian employees the right to bargain directly with the sheriff. The parties would enter into binding arbitration if they could not agree on employment conditions.
Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R) promised the FOP during his reelection campaign last year that he would support a bid for collective bargaining, but after Monday night's meeting, he said that he needed more time to review a two-page document outlining the proposed legislation.
Davis said the proposal raises some confusing questions, a sentiment echoed by commissioners. The sheriff said the main question concerns deputies' salaries, currently tied by law to the same scale as the Maryland State Police.
"I'd like to know exactly how it's going to be worked out before I take any position," Davis said.