Civil rights group accuses Talbot council of free speech snub

Talbot County Council Member Laura Price addresses the public during a Tuesday, June 23, council meeting.

EASTON — The Talbot County Council spurred heat from Sheriff Joe Gamble after four of five council members voted to send a letter in support of a recently-proposed policing reform bill to the Maryland Congressional Delegation.

H.R. 7120, or the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020” — sponsored by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives — seeks to “hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection, and reform police training and policies.”

The bill addresses issues such as banning certain tactical maneuvers used by officers, creating a national database of police officers whose behaviors might bar them from being able to police, and outlining a national standard for officer training, among other items.

Council President Corey Pack during a meeting Tuesday, June 23, requested that the council send a letter to offer its support for the legislation. After a lengthy and heated discussion on the matter, the council voted 4-1 in favor of sending the letter. Council Member Laura Price was the lone “no” vote.

Gamble took issue with the council opting not to seek his input before the vote, and in a reactionary email he sent to his deputies and later posted to Facebook, the sheriff called the partisan bill for which the council offered its support “horrendous.”

“Let me be perfectly clear, there are reforms that should be supported!” Gamble wrote in the email. “But this bill is horrendous!”

The sheriff suggested the council was wrong to cast the vote, and said perhaps the council members have “some expertise” he’s “unaware of” that would qualify them to take their chosen stance on the legislation.

“To be clear, NOT ONE ASKED me to weigh in, or give any advice on this bill that they voted to support,” Gamble wrote. “It appears that they could care less what their elected Sheriff has to say about any of it. It appears that they care more about their political agendas, or maybe they are just scared to face the mob.”

Gamble said he had concerns about provisions in the bill that would ban no-knock warrants at all levels of law enforcement, change language in laws that regulate police use of deadly force, and eliminate qualified immunity for police officers.

The council “has no idea” what the changes mean, “but you do,” the sheriff wrote in the email to his team.

“For almost 6 years I have been able to say to each of you that our county council supports law enforcement and supports you,” Gamble wrote. “Today, I can’t say that. Each of you and this whole county need to know who our council supports and who they don’t.

“I stand united with you to fight this ridiculous politically correct garbage,” he wrote.

Ahead of the council’s vote Tuesday evening that prompted Gamble’s anger, Pack saw pushback from Council Members Price and Frank Divilio, and Council Vice President Chuck Callahan.

The council members argued that before taking a vote on whether to send the letter, the council should consult Gamble, wait for the introduction of a more bipartisan bill, and hold a public hearing so that citizens could give their input on the position the county should take.

The council president said he would be open to hearing public comment on the subject, but he voiced distaste for his fellow council members’ reluctance to support the bill as it was written when he shared it with them a week ahead of Tuesday evening’s meeting.

“I think this council needs to make a stand where it is when it comes to the national policing process that we see in front of us,” Pack said to the council members. “I think we are either against over-policing in certain neighborhoods, against illegal chokeholds being used against citizens, against people wearing the uniform who shouldn’t be wearing the uniform … we are either against those things or we’re not.”

Price, appearing offended by Pack’s characterization of the council members’ hesitation to support the legislation, said to Pack, “You’re putting words in my mouth.”

“That’s not what I am trying to say,” she said. “All the things you stated are in both bills, but there are two bills and I’m not ready to take a position on H.R. 7120 when there’s another bill and (Democrats and Republicans) are trying to work out the compromise.”

Callahan then tapped in to the debate to say he supports the overall initiative outlined in the bills, but he would’ve liked to ask the sheriff’s opinion on the policing reform legislation before formally taking a position on it.

“Some of this training and the way they’re wording some of this stuff, we’re asking the council to approve a letter before we’re sure what some of this actually means,” Callahan said. “I think we’re all on board with proper techniques, but Sheriff Gamble, this is his wheelhouse and it’d be nice for him to be on board with this, too.”

In response Callahan’s point, Pack asked Callahan why he hadn’t reached out to the sheriff during the week since he sent the council members the legislation to review ahead of Tuesday evening’s vote.

“You either are for it, Chuck, or you’re not,” Pack said to Callahan. “I mean, it comes to a point where we have to make a decision based on what we feel comfortable with allowing and seeing in our nation.

“We don’t need to take a pulse check of the sheriff, a pulse check of the state’s attorney, to do that. Your eyes work just as good as mine. You see what’s happening.”

Callahan began to explain that he hadn’t reached out to Gamble because he wasn’t ready to do so. The council member then appeared to begin to say he “wasn’t on board” with supporting the legislation, but Pack cut him off.

“No you didn’t care to (consult Gamble) because you weren’t on board,” Pack said to Callahan.

Divilio interjected in an apparent effort to reduce the heat of the discussion: “Mr. Pack, I think we’re getting a little out of hand here.”

Pack didn’t back down from his full-throttled position on the matter, and he motioned that the council proceed with its vote. The council president’s motion was seconded by Council Member Pete Lesher, who hadn’t offered any input during the council’s preceding debate.

Gamble wrote in a Facebook post Thursday, June 25, that Lesher, Divilio and Callahan called him to apologize for offering their support of the letter after seeing his email, which he sent to the five council members.

“I truly believe that they did not fully comprehend what they were supporting!” the sheriff wrote.

As of Thursday evening, the council had delayed sending its letter of support for the bill in response to the sheriff’s comments. Price said the council now plans to retract the letter at its next council meeting.

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