In the sheriff’s office, diversity is key to unity
Black officers stand out locally
Across the country, citizens in different communities may fear law enforcement — a concern fostered in recent years by national reports of police officers using deadly force against minorities.
Because of that, many minority-majority communities around the country stigmatize police. There is a perception, Sheriff Troy Berry (D) said, that police departments do not represent their communities racially and socially. But the Charles County Sheriff’s Office wants to combat that.
Det. Master Cpl. Dorrell Savoy said being able to relate to those in the community he serves plays a large part in what he is able to do. As a detective, he said, crimes must be examined to a “more detailed degree.” And part of that degree, he said, is getting citizens to open up about victims, suspects and other key aspects to an investigation.
“You’ve got to have utmost respect. There has to be a level of trust or understanding,” Savoy said.
As a black man, Savoy said, he never grew up fearful of law enforcement because many members of his family were involved. And prior to becoming a member of the sheriff’s office, he said, he served in the U.S. Air Force.
But still, he said, he has run into situations where citizens have been apprehensive to speak or
interact with him because of the stigma placed on policing.
Last week, Savoy said, he pulled a woman over on a routine stop with her 3-year-old son in the back of her car. She was applying makeup as she was driving, he said.
She did not give Savoy any problems, he said, and had an overall “positive interaction” with him. However, Savoy said, her son asked, “Is the police officer going to shoot us?”
“That immediately affected me,” he said. “She addressed it, and I talked to the young man and I explained that police are there to help you. The mother really expressed her appreciation for me doing that.”
The key, he said, is just showing young men and women of color that there are officers that look like them and they are there to help.
Berry, who is Charles County’s first African-American sheriff, said he makes it a point to know residents throughout local communities. He worked in the office for years prior to being elected sheriff, he said, and that’s when he took the time to build relationships.
“It’s humbling. People have embraced me as a young officer and sheriff in the same way,” Berry said.
Many people do not expect to see a black sheriff in town, but Berry said that is just part of the process of changing perceptions in the community. “We’re just working hard here,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Berry gave cadets from the Southern Maryland Criminal Justice Academy badges for the completion of their program. But before he gave them their badges, he said, he made them promise one thing.
“You have to be a good ambassador,” Berry said. “Do not bring any discredit, on duty or off duty, to your profession or your agency.”
No matter what an officer looks like, Berry said, that aspect of the job remains the same.
The sheriff’s office working to fight antiquated perceptions about law enforcement does not stop with their ranking officers. Everyone — from their civilian employees to their correctional officers — is part of it.
James Ammons, a civilian employee in the department’s technology division, and Julie Young, a correctional officer with 14 years experience in the sheriff’s office, are both doing their part to give rise to the next wave of young people who want to help others.
As an African-American man, Ammons said, there is an ageold perception that black people do not like computers or math. But that perception is dead, he said — and he is the embodiment of it.
Ammons is responsible for the computer systems of 600 employees in the sheriff’s office, including the systems installed in police cruisers. At any moment, he could be called to fix a system in a cruiser, at the corrections facility in La Plata or in the sheriff’s main headquarters in La Plata. He handles 20 work orders on a daily basis, he said.
“I take my job very seriously. If something goes wrong, that puts that particular officer’s life in danger,” he said.
Math has never been a struggle for Ammons, he said. There were moments when it was challenging, he said, once he got to college, but he maintained his grades and improved.
The same goes with computers for him, he said. Though the technology is always changing, he keeps up.
“When I was a senior at Lackey High School and I went into the CISCO program, I was one of half a dozen black kids in the program,” Ammons said. “I was good at math, or at least I thought I was.”
All it takes is having the right people around, Ammons said. Even for some of the inmates in the correctional facility now, they have to use some of the same skills he does. Had they had better influences, he said, maybe they’d end up in the same space.
“As long as you have someone pushing you, you can make it,” Ammons said. “Some of these guys are really smart. They have to count, measure and do all of these things. All it takes is one person [guiding them].”
Young feels the same way. Her mother was a teacher, she said, and she instilled in her the quality of helping others. That is what her job as a correctional officer entails.
Her job, she said, is to help direct other correctional officers in the facility where they need to be, help them make rounds in the facility, help deal with inmates as well as any frustrations they may have throughout the facility.
Though she is not there to be friendly with inmates, Young has to “empathize” with them and let them know she is not there to be an enemy.
As a black woman, she said, many people would not expect her to be in the position she is. But “this is exactly where I want to be,” she said.
Some of the other officers in the facility address her as “mom” because she always gives guidance in the right places. She was “born to help people,” she said, and knew that early on in life because of her mother’s support.
No matter what a person looks like, what they may have done or who they may be involved with, Young said, she wants to lend a guiding hand. And it is not anything special or out of the ordinary for her.
“It’s just what I do,” she said. “I can still hear my mom, telling me to keep doing this. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
Anyone else can do it, too, said Young — no matter what they may look like on the outside. What matters is the character inside, she said.
Charles County Sheriff’s Office Correctional Officer Julie Young on duty in her office in front of the American Flag as she gives direction throughout the county’s correctional facility.
Charles County Sheriff’s Office Detective Dorrell Savoy stands in a conference room at the Charles County sheriff’s office before he goes out to work in the community on Wednesday morning.
Civilian employee and IT expert James Ammons standing at his desk on Wednesday morning before going out and working on orders made throughout the department.