A small town suspended its entire police force. Residents want to know why

Central Avenue in downtown Ridgely, Maryland, sits empty, Friday, March 15, 2024. Ridgely officials announced last week that their entire police department had been suspended pending the results of an investigation by state prosecutors. (AP Photo/Lea Skene)

Central Avenue in downtown Ridgely, Maryland, sits empty, Friday, March 15, 2024. Ridgely officials announced last week that their entire police department had been suspended pending the results of an investigation by state prosecutors. (AP Photo/Lea Skene)

RIDGELY, Md. (AP) — A small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has suspended its entire police force pending the results of an investigation by state prosecutors, a largely unexplained decision that has left residents shocked, skeptical and on edge.

The unusually harsh crackdown on law enforcement in Ridgely suggests that even some of the country’s most rural communities are feeling the effects of the national reckoning on policing that unfolded in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

With the Ridgely Police Department temporarily defunct, other public safety agencies have agreed to fill the void. But residents of the historic town are concerned about response times should they need assistance. And they remain entirely in the dark about why their police department was shut down.

Laura Cline, a longtime Ridgely resident, said she’s frustrated with the lack of transparency from town leaders and law enforcement.

“What’s very concerning is that they didn’t communicate with us in an honest and open way,” Cline said. “Treat us with respect. We’re adults — thinking, rational adults who deserve the truth.”

In a statement posted to the town government’s website last week, officials said Ridgely’s three-member commission had “suspended with pay the entirety of the Ridgely Police Department,” and that the Office of State Prosecutor — which handles cases of public misconduct, election fraud, ethics law violations and more — is investigating.

But Ridgely Director of Operations David Crist declined to provide The Associated Press with even basic information about the suspensions, including the number of officers on the force. The department’s website says it employs half a dozen officers.

“We were blindsided,” said Holly Justice, an esthetician who owns a spa in Ridgely. “It makes you question the integrity of people who are supposed to protect and serve.”

Justice, whose business is located across the street from the police department, said she would often exchange greetings with officers. She said the recent developments feel like a betrayal because she considered them members of the community.

“Like I knew those guys,” she said. “It just makes you wonder.”

While the suspension came as a shock to residents, it isn’t the first time Ridgely has faced questions about policing practices.

The department made headlines several years ago when its then-chief was involved in the 2018 death of Anton Black in neighboring Greensboro.

Black died after officers pinned him down for more than five minutes as they wrestled him into handcuffs and shackles. His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit and received a $5 million settlement from three Eastern Shore towns, including Ridgely, whose off-duty chief helped restrain the 19-year-old.

The current chief, Jeff Eckrich, spent most of his career at the Prince George’s County Police Department in the suburbs of Washington D.C., including 12 years as a homicide detective, before joining the department in Ridgely.

Ridgely officials said they’ve made arrangements with the nearby Caroline County Sheriff’s Office to respond to calls for service within the town’s boundaries for now. Some residents worried that slower response times and a reduced law enforcement presence could make them targets for would-be criminals.

Caroline County Sheriff David Baker sought to assuage their concerns, saying his agency is well equipped to handle the extra calls. He said Maryland State Police would also pitch in.

Crime in the county has been notoriously low for decades. According to federal crime data, Caroline County, which includes Ridgely, has reported four homicides since 2000. And in Ridgely, violent crime peaked in 2010 with a total of 41 incidents reported.

More often than not, Ridgely police officers are dealing with minor public safety issues. The department’s Facebook page is filled with posts about officers participating in community events and supporting local businesses. Other posts contain information about lost keys, credit cards, bikes and other items officers had recovered around town.

With a population of about 1,600, Ridgely boasts an abundance of small-town charm and a proud history rooted in the expansion of the American railroad in the late 1800s. An antique caboose sits on display outside the town’s old train station, which was restored and renovated in 2017. The town hall and police department offices are housed in a historic building that once served as Caroline County’s only hospital.

The little local news coverage the town has received in recent years focused mostly on its annual winter festival, which draws thousands of visitors.

But several years ago — two years before Floyd’s death prompted nationwide protests against racism and police brutality — Black’s deadly arrest placed an unwelcome spotlight on the majority-white community and presented what has become a tragically familiar scene: a young Black man taking his last breaths during a traumatic encounter with police.

Maryland lawmakers passed a package of police accountability measures in 2021 that included a bill in Black’s memory to expand public access to police disciplinary records because of questions surrounding past misconduct allegations against an officer involved in his death. The police chief who hired that officer in Greensboro later pleaded guilty to criminal misconduct for omitting information from his application for police certification.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide have struggled to recruit new members in recent years, especially in rural areas. Small-town departments often receive little scrutiny in communities where crime is low and oversight is minimal, conditions exacerbated by the decline of local newspapers.

An officer hired last year in Ridgely had faced misconduct allegations in Delaware before joining the department, court records show. That officer resigned in January. Another Ridgely officer was hired despite having an arrest record in Delaware.

While speculation has fueled the rumor mill in recent days, residents said, suspending the whole department suggests the problem is bigger than one officer.

“It doesn’t add up,” said Gennie Woo, whose family has owned a general store in downtown Ridgely since 1983. “Everybody is skeptical about what happened. We just want to know how and why.”

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Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

AP U.S. News

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