Police and politics

Our view: From yard signs to badges, police chiefs often face a no-win proposition in an election year even when they try to stay out of the line of fire

August 29, 2010

Pity the local police chief trying to stay neutral in an election season. His actions can be construed as an endorsement of a candidate — but then, so can a perceived failure to act.

Take the case of Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson. He recently wrote a letter to a council candidate to stop using an image of an official county police badge in his ads, and quickly got blasted by the candidate and his lawyer.

Chief Johnson has warned his own officers about not reproducing the badge. It's trademarked, and the department has more than once cracked down on groups that want to use it on T-shirts — even squads in his own department.

Charles "Buzz" Beeler, who is running as a candidate in District 7, is certainly within his rights to claim an association with the police department. He was employed there more than three decades. But he should have known better than to reproduce the badge.

"I am not intimidated nor will I be bulled," Mr. Beeler told The Baltimore Sun's Raven L. Hill. But perhaps he should simply have used some common sense: Police departments go to great lengths to protect the images of badges or insignia so they won't be misused by criminals or others.

Had the chief looked the other way, his failure to follow procedure might have been construed as an endorsement of Mr. Beeler. As it was, the candidate wrongly accused him of playing politics. It was a classic Catch-22.

Meanwhile, a city police detective donned a generic police uniform and recently appeared in a television ad for Gregg Bernstein, the former federal prosecutor who is running for Baltimore City state's attorney against incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy. That put Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III in a difficult position, as he's already been blasted by Mrs. Jessamy for briefly having a Bernstein yard sign at his home.

Mr. Bealefeld could have leaned on the detective (who serves as a spokesman for the department) not to get involved. But he'd be on shaky legal ground to tell an off-duty employee (who isn't using any trademarked image, incidentally) to give up his First Amendment right to free speech.

Alas, the incident only underscores the commissioner's mistake in openly expressing support for Mr. Bernstein this summer. Unlike Chief Johnson, he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt even when he makes the right choice.

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