Public statement regarding the traffic stop matter on Sunday, June 20th
Because of the nature of the event, the level of attention and interest in what happened, the concerns expressed and the misinformation that has been part of some of the media coverage and public discussion, I am writing this post. Please feel free to share it with anyone you think might be interested.
This is not short. And that plays to some characterizations and criticisms of me as long winded, and so on. But it is what it is, an honest, heartfelt and direct statement to help shed some light onto what happened, and why.
1) A basic description of the event from my point of view,
2) An acknowledgement of what I could or should have done differently, with an apology to the sheriff’s deputy, and…
3) An explanation of why I was concerned in the first place.
4) A few additional thoughts.
1) What happened:
On the evening of Sunday, June 20 (Father’s Day), my wife and I were returning home from Frederick.
Driving up Route 15 about sunset, we noticed a county sheriff’s deputy put on it’s flashers to pull over a car that had been driving ahead of us in the right, northbound lane. Instead of pulling off to the side or shoulder of Route 15, the driver of the vehicle pulled off onto Route 806, a quiet, empty two-lane road.
As the driver and the following deputy’s car started to pull off onto Route 806, we passed them, and my wife noticed that the driver of the vehicle was black.
For reasons I will explain below, we decided to double back on Route 806, just to make sure everything was okay.
PLEASE NOTE: Contrary to much of what has been said or written by people who are angry about this, I did not assume that anything was wrong. I did not assume that, just because I didn’t think the driver was speeding that there wasn’t some other legitimate reason for making the stop. I didn’t assume the deputy was doing anything wrong, whatsoever. Again, contrary to much of what has been said or written, one does not have to start with any such assumptions to have some concern.
Heading south on Route 806, we saw the vehicle and the deputy’s car, with flashers on, up ahead, not too far from where they had exited from Route 15.
I slowly pulled over on the opposite (west) side of 806, across the road from the other vehicles. There is no shoulder there (or there is one, but only an extra foot or so of pavement). I rolled down my window, and asked if everything was alright.
The deputy replied to me that I was blocking traffic (there was none, in either direction) and asked me to move on.
I said I would, but introduced myself as a county council member, and asked again if the driver could just let me know everything was okay. The deputy did not appear pleased about that, but, without saying anything (that I could hear, at least), motioned for the driver to respond…or that he could. The driver said everything was alright. We drove away.
I wasn’t keeping track, but I am confident that the total amount of time we spend there was 30 seconds or less.
PLEASE NOTE: Contrary to much of what has been said or written, I was on the opposite side of the road, I did not raise my voice. I did not get out of our car. And, just to correct the statements made as clearly as possible, I was driving a white car, not a silver one.
2) An acknowledgement and an apology
Although I was across the road, polite and brief, I have come to fully appreciate that it was a mistake to pull up directly across the road, and a mistake to speak to the deputy (all the more so when nothing appeared to be wrong).
If I believed it was reasonable to observe what was happening, for more time or less, I realize and genuinely understand that the better choice would have been to either stop a few yards or more farther up the road, and/or perhaps just drive by at a reasonable speed.
PLEASE NOTE: I have heard from a lot of people about this. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the communication, by email, voice mail, social media posts and comments and more, has been ugly, and even threatening, including a lot that has been very ugly and some that has been seriously threatening.
Nevertheless, there have been some (perhaps 5% or less) who have expressed their view or concern or objection in a civil and thoughtful manner, sharing some perspective or perhaps direct experience as law enforcement officers. I sincerely appreciate those (including some people I know, and mostly those I do not know) who approached me and the matter in that manner, and many of those missives were helpful and productive.
In general, I always try to keep in mind what the impact would be if many or most people did something in one way or another. If the answer is that a choice or action would not be sustainable or would be problematic, or worse, it is not good or proper to carve out a personal exception. There are many examples.
Based on that and other considerations, including the personal safety of everyone involved, it is clear that the better and more responsible and appropriate choice would have been to observe — or bear witness — from farther away, and to not speak to or with either the deputy or the driver of the vehicle.
And so, I would like to offer my sincere apology to both the deputy and the driver of the vehicle for pulling up across the road and addressing either of them, however briefly and politely…especially because even briefly and politely doesn’t remove the possibility of contributing to or causing a problem.
3) An explanation of why I was concerned in the first place
Why did I decide to check on the situation, as I did or as I should have?
This moment arose in a particular context. That context includes the fact that, as an active citizen, a community leader and an elected official over recent years, I have heard from many Black and Latino members of our community who have had moderately to seriously negative experiences as part of traffic stops in Frederick County.
I have also heard about more specific examples as second hand descriptions from others I consider credible.
This is essentially personal or anecdotal evidence, of course. But enough, regardless, to counter the repeated assertions and denials about such things from Sheriff Jenkins himself, who has often stated that he, personally, or his department, officially, receives little or no such complaints, suggesting it really isn’t a problem at all.
I know it happens, and that it is not so rare as to be the exception that proves the rule, so to speak. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this incident has encouraged still more Black and Latino members of our community to share additional examples with me…of their personal experience.
But, even if we were to discount any and all such stories of people’s direct, personal experience, the evidence is not just anecdotal. Data from Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, over time, has demonstrated a clear pattern in which
For example, while Black citizens represent approximately 10% of Frederick County (and notably less of the county’s population outside of the City of Frederick, which has its own police department), in 2018 they accounted for 27% of the adult arrests and 40% of the juvenile arrests by the FCSO. Perhaps more on point, traffic enforcement data indicates that Black citizens are more likely to receive a traffic citation than a warning than their white neighbors.
Disparate treatment and outcomes exist across the entire range of law enforcement activities. That includes not just traffic stops and citations, but also what are known as “field interviews” (the brief detainment of an individual, whether on foot or in a vehicle, based on reasonable suspicion, for the purpose of determining the individual’s identity and resolving the officer’s suspicions concerning criminal activity), where it is three to four times the percentage of Black citizens in the Frederick County population.
The same sort of substantial disparities exist in other categories, such as criminal arrests, search warrants, etc.
This is not imaginary. And acknowledging that and addressing it, or not, should not define political differences.
There is much more along these lines that could be discussed, and should be more widely understood and more thoroughly investigated. But this is not the time and the place for that.
But the real stories I hear, directly and indirectly, over a period of years, from Black and Latino men and women, and what data is available, combine with still other things to explain why a rational citizen might have some concerns about what happens in a remote traffic stop, EVEN IF one assumes the odds are high that nothing is wrong or will go wrong.
Some of the “other things” I refer to have to do with hearing from and interacting with Sheriff Jenkins, directly and indirectly, over the years since I first got to know him, when we were both running for county office in 2006.
Among those things is the fact that Sheriff Jenkins has, over time, emphatically and repeatedly, asserted that there is absolutely no systemic racism…in Frederick County law enforcement or our judicial system, or, for that matter, anywhere in the law enforcement or judicial system in our entire country.
This is what he maintains, harboring no doubt of any kind, despite mountains of evidence of substantially disparate outcomes and impacts in law enforcement and our judicial actions…literally at every stage of both processes (even such as bail, sentencing, and so on, across the board).
If you don’t acknowledge something exists at all, you aren’t going to be sensitive to, or even open to, finding it or seeing it in your own department. And, of course, just as unlikely to do anything, ever, to address, reduce or mitigate it.
You will also dismiss and ignore the people who bear the brunt of such disparities, even if and when one is courageous enough to bring it to your attention.
4) A few thoughts about the last few week
For the Sheriff to respond to this incident is reasonable. But the nature of his response was not.
I have a history of asking difficult questions of the sheriff, and, on occasion, being an outspoken critic of some of the things he says and does. Largely because of that, he has increasingly railed against me, far more often with insults and labels than anything calm or thoughtful or substantive.
When this happened, he saw and seized an opportunity to take advantage of…politically, at least. As part of that, he did not contact me at all, he chose to go on the radio, where he spoke about it with anger and venom, while at the same time, framing almost every detail in the worst possible way (including getting a few basic facts wrong).
As one person aptly put it, he smelled blood in the water, and then proceeded to do whatever he could to generate a “feeding frenzy.”
Fuel was added to that fire when Fox News published a long article that added many direct quotes from the sheriff that were harshly attacking me, while including nothing from me (because, as they wrote, I did not “immediately respond” to their inquiry.
Those choices and more led to the volume and intensity of extremely ugly and threatening communication I have been receiving from across the country.
People make mistakes. I could and should have approached the initial situation somewhat differently. I have listened and thought about it, and learned that. And I would never suggest the incident is not a legitimate basis for attention and criticism. But the political opportunism underlying the sheriff’s response is regrettable and even dangerous.
My hope, other than wanting to move the discussion about this to a calmer and less volatile place, is that our community engages in more frequent and thorough and honest discussions about the concerns and issues that led me to think it was a reasonable idea to stop in the first place. Again, they aren’t imaginary.
Calling me a racist, as the sheriff and others have, is an unintended acknowledgment that the accuser doesn’t understand why I…or someone or anyone else…would or should not
be entirely colorblind, in this situation or more generally.
We won’t see or effectively deal with the real issues if we aren’t willing to believe they exist.
I support our system of laws, and law enforcement agencies and personnel. Doing so, however, can not now or ever be a reason to be uncritical. In fact, it is our duty as citizens, or elected officials, or leaders and members of law enforcement to identify what can be done differently or better, and make every effort to do so.
I have tried to do that myself in this instance, regarding my own choices.
If you got this far, thank you for reading.