By Joe Boschert to the Calvert Beacon
I arrived close to the start of the Sheriff’s Forum, electing to forgo the meet and greet beforehand. Truth be told I forgot I had the trash in my truck, and had to turn around to hit the convenience center. By the time I had arrived, the room had mostly filled. 200 or so mostly unmasked people had gathered to hear the candidates speak publicly at something other than a fundraiser.
Mike Wilson spoke the theme of this evening, during the night’s final question. “You’re looking at very conservative police officers up here”, and “we all consider ourselves conservative, constitutional sheriffs”. Throughout the entire two-hour event, I found myself struck by just how similar the candidates were. There are differences between them all, to be sure; I imagine more differences than we can really see on the stage under the public lights. Mostly though, all five were Cops, and they all brought Cop’s solutions to the table.
Let’s start first with the spot where there was the most agreement. Vaccine mandates. All five of the candidates said plainly they would not require a mandate. Wilson and Johnson both offered up their vaccinated status as an olive branch. Though Wilson said he would not encourage officers to get the vaccine, while Johnson said he would set up clinics for the officers to receive them if they wished. Requiring officers to mask was mentioned off handedly by the majority of candidates, with a popular caveat of “If community members are concerned”. In short, very little at best regarding covid measures.
All candidates acknowledge that diversity in the CCSO is abysmal. Kontra gave the stats. “160 sworn personnel, 142 white male, 9 African American male, 2 Hispanic males, 7 white females”. This was a very interesting moment in the night, Kontra and McDowell specifically and solely mentioning going to Black churches and Minority Churches for recruitment purposes. Wilson saying our diversity in Calvert County is “70–30” at a guess. Johnson said he was the fourth black deputy in the department.
All candidates, at some point mentioned that Calvert County is the safest county in MD, that crime is trending down, and has been trending down in Calvert for some time. All candidates lobbied for an increase in the CCSO budget as a way to draw more talent. All candidates agree that Calvert has been practicing community policing for a long time. All of them agree that we need police to be more visible and more interactive with the community.
Frankly, this was the majority of all of their platforms too. There are key ways in which all of them differed, which I will outline shortly. I really want to hammer home though, that they are all more or less the same, from a policy standpoint.
Let’s start with Cox. He focused on the opiate crisis, and mental health in the county. SRO in every school, as well as rotating all deputies through the schools so that they can get eyes on the building and understand it’s layout. When it came to the Police accountability boards, Cox believes that no one with an “Axe to grind “against law enforcement should be allowed on them, That the sheriff should have the final say as to what happens with deputies. Cox waved the bloody shirt often, holding up training in the Marine Corp as a key qualification. The Marine outlook was apparent all night from him, particularly in how his SRO concepts revealed his priorities.
Next is Kontra. The main thing that stood out to me was that he wants to “Continue the war on Drugs”. He also suggests forming a Citizens Advisory Council to the sheriffs, that meets quarterly. Otherwise, Kontra very much seemed like last generations solutions, to last generations problems. He did very little to stand out from the crowded Republican field.
McDowell brought a bit of theatrics to his opening statement. Stepping down from the podium, and marching back and forth in front of the audience with his hand clasped behind his back. He often brought up his thirty years of service, and to be fair, his record is very extensive. The major plank I was able to glean from his platform is an increase in traffic enforcement on RT4, mentioning the posted speed of 55. He mentioned allocating more resources specifically for officer mental health. McDowell also had a Sheriff’s Advisory Council on his platform. A ten-member council of taxpaying citizens, that would be privy to the leadership discussions, and have first look at policies. McDowell also referenced the Sheriff as “the highest elected office in the county”. He also -specifically- mentioned using that council to Strong-arm the commissioners into raising the department’s budget.
Mike Wilson is next, and he’s the outsider of the race despite being a resident of Calvert for thirty years or so. He is the commander of the state capitol police. His major theme was restoring “legitimacy” to the Calvert sheriff’s office, as well as a “guardian” rather than “warrior” mindset. He did speak near the beginning of the night about “pre-emptive” policing, and data-informed policing. At first blush it sounded like broken-windows, and CompStat that originated in NYC. This immediately makes me leery, as these mechanisms have constantly been under scrutiny as supporting systemic racism. Something for the voters to keep their eyes on, ask pointed questions to make Wilson develop his position further. Luckily, he also specifically mentioned regular town halls with the Sheriff, if he were elected.
Johnson drew the low card, and answered every question last. The lone Democrat, running a bipartisan ticket. The crux of Johnson’s campaign was to increase good will towards the Sheriff’s office. He recited an anecdote about how he grew up around the department, and how he regards it as family and community. The major innovation he offered was a “neighborhood deputy” program, as well as reorganizing officer metrics to weigh community engagement more highly, rather than just enforcement. Deputies would be assigned to a specific neighborhood, and have their patrol schedules reflect that. They would make themselves available as a source of authority in that neighborhood, to in theory, help solve problems before they begin. On more than one occasion, he brought up the core virtue of “transparency” for the department.
I’m going to speak here about the final question of the evening, and it was a doozy. “How do you view your authority as the senior law enforcement officer in the county, in light of possible encroachment by federal law enforcement efforts”. All of the republicans took this as a 2A question, which is very telling if you ask me. None of them approached it from vaccine standpoint, or from a shift in enforcement on drugs, or any of the other things this question could apply to. Just immediately the culture issue of guns. Cox said he would poll the community in such an event, and go with “majority rules”. Kontra said he would arrest federal agents. McDowell gave a very short answer, “If the federal govt comes to Calvert County, to try to enforce their laws, I will stand in front of that”. Mike Wilson said he thought that was a very unlikely scenario. Johnson said he would protect the community from all threats.
These are my observations, and I’ve tried to present them without bias, or make bias very obvious. Now I’m going to speak about a few personal takeaways, and personal responses.
This room was full of cops. The entire event felt like a group of cops standing up, and discussing who would lead them next. With the poor advertising of the event, the venue not providing livestream capabilities, and the venue itself being about as north in the county as you can go, it’s a very bad look for the people and candidates involved. The venue also could not provide me a copy of the list of questions, though the candidates had them with enough time to each have handwritten or typed responses. Actions speak louder than words, despite every candidate crowing about diversity and inclusion on the stage
Almost every officer spoke about the need for more visibility from the officers. The need for the officers to get out of the patrol cars and interact with the community. They spoke about it mostly as an image issue, that if they could just be out in and amongst the community, people will love and respect them again. The more each of them brought it up, the more it sounded like a desensitization campaign, rather than addressing the issues people have raised with the department. McDowell gets very close to the point when the candidates took their turns speaking about the “do-not call lists” that Prosecutor offices keep for untrustworthy police.
“A law enforcement officer can take someone’s freedom, or sometimes even their life, based on their word. That trust cannot be compromised …if a culture exists in an agency where that is not the case, then that goes straight to the top.”
Friends of mine have been surveilled for no more reason than their politics, for their participation in civic life with left politics. The local NAACP chapter cites common complaints of being detained for long searches with little evidence. Demitris Hall’s family maintains to this day that the Sheriff’s office has hidden the truth of their son’s death. So, when McDowell says “we don’t have those issues with the Calvert County Sheriff’s office”, it makes the community policing claims ring hollow. Citizens have very serious complaints against the sheriff’s department. Their increased presence in our communities without attempting to understand the complaints will exacerbate, not repair the strained relationship.
It is my opinion that McDowell specifically, and the candidates in general, view the Sheriff as the Chief Executive of the county. It is also my opinion that McDowell is interested in consolidating the power of the sheriff, and turning it into something akin to a County Executive. With such a high occurrence of “constitutional sheriffs” I was disappointed to see none of them bringing up the importance of checks and balances, or Co-Equal Branches of Government. The Sheriff’s office is currently the highest executive office in the county, despite it technically being an officer of the court. The office is accountable only to the voters every four years, and yearly to the commissioners at budget time. This is not “constitutional “in my eyes. I welcome any of the candidates to provide arguments that would convince me elsewise.
Ultimately, I walked away unconvinced by any of the five candidates. Early in the evening Cox brought up the idea of the Sheriff’s Department being at a Crossroads. None of the candidates inspired confidence that they are ready to make that choice in a way that will move us forward as a community. None of them made me believe that they are ready to meet this moment.