On Friday, we learned that the Maryland State Police infiltrated and monitored several peace and anti-death penalty activist groups in that state during 2005 – 2006. The surreptitious activity occurred over 14 months during the Robert L. Ehrlich administration.
Democratic governor Martin O’Malley and State Police Superintendent Col. Terrance Sheridan should act at once to denounce these activities; discipline the current and former police officials involved; and make amends to the affected groups for the state’s conduct.
The governor can show the state’s good faith by granting to each of the targeted groups – the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans – an amount equal to 14 months’ operating expenses.
These grants can be funded by the State Police operating budget. Death penalty supporters argue that capital punishment “sends a message” of deterrence to future criminals, so a financial penalty against the State Police for official misconduct should send a similar message to police departments everywhere.
Additionally, the Maryland General Assembly should take whatever legislative steps are necessary to prohibit such police misconduct in the future.
So far, however, the state’s official reaction to this news has been as tepid as the state’s activity was insidious. At a press conference Friday, Col. Sheridan said he was “troubled” by his agency’s “disconcerting” methods but that there was a “rational explanation” for the State’s conduct. He noted that, “We just need to use better judgment in these situations.”
He was troubled and disconcerted? Oh my goodness, Heaven forfend! That’s not even close, Col. Sheridan. You should be incensed by your agency’s outrageous (not to mention unconstitutional) conduct. The Colonel says these activities have not continued and will not be renewed. But why should anyone believe him? Has their judgment suddenly improved?
What, one wonders, could be the “rational explanation” for the State Police activities in this matter? The “rational explanation” is that State Police were concerned about the possibility of violent protests related to two planned executions in 2005. But anti-death penalty activists are seldom violent; why did the agency think these protests would be different?
If Col. Sheridan thinks this is in any way an adequate explanation and therefore an excuse for gross misconduct by Maryland State Police, I can hardly wait to get a speeding ticket there. My explanation will be that I was trying to avoid police imposters who install lights and sirens on their cars, stop law-abiding citizens, and then try to blackmail or assault them. Hey, that’s as rational as the Colonel’s explanation is!
Earlier in the week, former governor Ehrlich said he was unaware of the surveillance but that it was vetted by the Maryland attorney general's office. He did not say how he could know it was vetted when he did not even know of its existence, or what action he took it after he found out about it. The Attorney General’s office contradicted the former governor, saying it had no knowledge of the surveillance.
Retired State Police captain Mark Gabriele, who was in charge of the agency’s homeland security and intelligence division at the time, believes the State Police did nothing wrong. "Collecting information about what you're up against is a normal process," he said. “There’s nothing to hide, to be quite honest with you.”
The trouble with that reasoning is that the State Police should not have been “up against” anti-death penalty protestors at all; they should have been up against those who would disrupt their peaceful, Constitutionally-protected protest. (And, no offense to the captain, but honest people generally do not use the qualifier, “… to be perfectly honest with you.” They don't need to.)
For his part, Governor O’Malley said the police actions were “very concerning” to him, calling them a waste of resources and contrary to the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of assembly. That’s right-headed reasoning, Governor, although if the actions are blatantly unconstitutional then their efficiency really does not matter. The question for you now is, what are you going to do about it?
Police agencies across the country say their mission is, “To protect and to serve.” That has to mean more than, “To protect our own interests and to serve ourselves.” Yet that’s what the Maryland State Police now appear to be doing. Governor O’Malley’s response will tell us what “To protect and to serve” really means in Maryland.