The $1,070 donation seemed small, and routine.
Police officers in Anne Arundel County, through their labor union, contributed the money to the legal defense fund of Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager this month.
But with the donation, the county’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70 stepped into a national controversy, drawing an unusual public rebuke from the department’s chief and isolating itself from some sister police unions in Maryland.
In a statement, Anne Arundel’s police chief, Kevin Davis, said he disagreed with the union president. Davis, who joined the Anne Arundel department in July 2013 after a career with the police in Prince George’s County, said he had heard from “many outraged citizens” who thought it was the department giving the money.
He also noted that he attended a local NAACP rally about Ferguson and that “policing in the 21st century requires strong relationships with all of our residents.”
The head of the Anne Arundel police union, O’Brien Atkinson, did not return an e-mail request for comment. He could not be reached by phone.
Anne Arundel, which sprawls from the Baltimore City line to well southeast of the District, has about 550,000 residents, 16 percent of whom are African American. Of about 700 police officers, 48 are African American, according to a department spokesman.
The Missouri incident has roiled the country, as thousands have protested the shooting in Ferguson and nationwide. Protesters marched through downtown Washington Saturday night, carrying signs with slogans including “Stop Racist Police Terror.” The march closed streets but concluded without apparent incident.
Others have rushed to Wilson’s defense. The controversy is proving so volatile that supporting the officer’s legal defense can be seen as supporting the shooting, some police officers said.
Lt. Dean Jones, president of FOP Lodge 89, in Prince George’s, said his local decided against sending money to support Wilson, who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
“We think this is a matter best handled by the local FOP in Missouri,” Jones said Saturday, adding that he sees no need to jeopardize relations with the community. “I don’t think we should get involved,” he said. Prince George’s has about 890,000 residents, 65 percent of whom are black. Its roughly 1,800-member police force is about 60 percent African American.
Jones said many people do not understand that labor unions are separate from police departments and do not always reflect the views of individual officers. People might think the donation comes from the police agency, and that could create problems.
“It’s too political right now,” Jones said. “We just prefer to abstain. Enough money has already been raised for him.”
Ismael “Vince” Canales, a retired veteran of the Prince George’s police and president of the Maryland FOP, an umbrella group of state police unions, distanced his group from the controversy. He said support for the Ferguson officer is being left up to individual labor groups.
Canales said he is unaware of any other Maryland police union contributing money to support Wilson.
Atkinson also serves on the state FOP’s executive board, as the first vice president. Canales declined to comment on the donation from the Anne Arundel chapter. About Ferguson, he said: “The investigation is still pending. We don’t know all the facts, and we would be remiss if we say anything too soon.”
Atkinson told the Baltimore Sun, which first reported the donation last week, that the lodge initially wanted to support Ferguson officers working long hours in the shooting’s aftermath. But he told the paper that the national FOP directed him to the legal defense fund.
That fund raised $234,910, according to its page on GoFundMe.com. It has since been replaced by another fund on the GoFundMe site, but this one is associated with a certified nonprofit organization called Shield of Hope. Its address is the same as that of the St. Louis County Police FOP Lodge 15, and the national FOP links to the site from its Web site. That fund had raised nearly $70,000 by Saturday.