Trial board rules that Towson captain in campaign ad violated policy

March 29, 1995|By Dan Thanh Dang and Larry Carson | Dan Thanh Dang and Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writers

A Towson police captain violated departmental policy when he let congressional Candidate Gerry B. Brewster film a law-and-order campaign advertisement in the precinct's lockup, a Baltimore County trial board ruled yesterday.

Capt. Roger L. Sheets said he was misled by a fast-talking political campaign manager in October, but police officials said the officer was aware of what was going on.

The three-member departmental trial board found Captain Sheets guilty of jeopardizing the impartial position of the department in political matters and a general breach of conduct. The board will recommend a punishment next week.

The controversy began in October when Mr. Brewster, a Democrat running the 2nd District, aired a TV ad that showed him slamming the cell door on a "criminal" in the Towson station. Captain Sheets was standing next to Mr. Brewster with his back to the camera.

The ad also showed Mr. Brewster, a former county prosecutor, talking with two other police officers near a cruiser with flashing lights in front of the Towson station.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich, who eventually defeated Mr. Brewster, complained bitterly about the ad. Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill sent him a letter of apology and promised an internal investigation.

During yesterday's eight-hour hearing, Captain Sheets, Mr. Brewster and his campaign aides presented different versions of the incident.

Captain Sheets said Brewster campaign chairman Harold Long and campaign manager James Brochin approached him and asked permission for Mr. Brewster to tour the 67-year-old Towson station and talk about poor conditions there.

"My intention was just to walk through the building with Mr. Brewster," Captain Sheets said. "I was never told they would be using it for a political campaign, but I suspected it later. They hoodwinked me . . . I never should have let them in the door.

"When they showed me the first tape, I told them: 'You can't do this. This is obviously a political ad and this is not what I agreed to. You absolutely cannot use this.' They told me they would edit it and get back to me."

Captain Sheets did concede that he participated in the filming and said, "I was taking directions from the director to shut the cell door. I was caught up in the whole thing with the lights and the camera.

"But I didn't know at that time that it would be used in a political campaign," he said.

Mr. Brochin told the board that Captain Sheets was hesitant about allowing the taping but said, "We're very pushy people."

Mr. Brochin did his best during the hearing to aid the defense, repeating the captain's objections to every part of the process. But Mr. Brochin said he used the pictures of the police officers because "I felt like we had gotten permission" to use the two officers outside and had done his best to hide Captain Sheets' shoulder patch and face. "I felt I acted in good faith," he said.

Mr. Long disagreed and said Mr. Brewster's campaign team took advantage of Captain Sheets.

"We used the man," he said. "We violated the man's trust. I feel responsible."

Fraternal Order of Police attorney Michael Marshall argued that the department had no written policy to guide Captain Sheets. But Chief Gambrill, who also testified yesterday, said the department has a long-standing policy of not taking sides in political disputes, regardless of whether it is written down.

He said the department is particularly strict about officers' images appearing in campaign literature or other materials.

Mr. Marshall also noted that no departmental charges were brought against Sgt. Leonard Wayne Howard and Officer Albert L. Lindhorst, who appeared in the same commercial.

E. Jay Miller, police spokesman, said both officers received "command level counseling." He said appearing on a public street is different than allowing a candidate to film inside a police building.

Captain Sheets had no comment after the verdict, but Mr. Marshall said, "Nothing surprises me in this department.

"I don't think they treat their people very well," he said. "To put Captain Sheets through this is bad for morale and bad for the department. They failed to show any rules the department has on the issue and what violations he committed. I can't understand why they would treat their people so poorly."

He said the captain may appeal to Circuit Court, depending on the recommendation for punishment.

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