When Police Harass Cove Point Protesters, Is Dominion Getting What It Paid For?

Dfc. Christopher Sloane leans into car and asks for I.D. after he stopped two cars in the Cove Point neighborhood.

Dfc. Christopher Sloane asks for I.D. after stopping two cars in the Cove Point neighborhood./Photo by Donny Williams

The shoulders of Cove Point Road in Lusby, Maryland are looking pretty ragged these days. Recently, heavy trucks and construction vehicles have crumbled the pavement as they thunder down the narrow road. Not far up Cove Point Road from the main highway, just past the sometimes clogged intersection with H.G. Trueman Rd., they turn left and enter the gates of the LNG plant that’s been there for 40 years, but is now undergoing a major upgrade. The road also looks a little brownish from dirt spilled by dump trucks.

Early in the morning on Sunday, May 31, there was no traffic to speak of when two cars with Pennsylvania license plates negotiated the gentle turns and hills of Cove Point Road. A police cruiser followed them. Soon after Cove Point Road turned into Lighthouse Blvd., the two cars, still followed by the police cruiser, turned onto Holly Drive. Blue lights flashed. A sheriff’s deputy wearing olive green pants and a black shirt got out and approached the first car.

“You don’t belong here,” he said. “You’re not welcome here.”

As he leaned in, a white badge dangled from a lanyard around his neck. It read, “Dominion Contractor.”

The Double-Sided Badge

What happened over the next hour–an “investigation of suspicious vehicles” by ten officers and a drug-sniffing dog, which culminated in an arrest—might be traced back to the fact that the white badge had a flip side. When Dfc. Christopher Sloane turned it over, it suddenly became a Calvert County Sheriff’s Department badge on a black background.

The badge’s two sides, and the ease with which they were switched, represent an unusual arrangement in Calvert County between its local law enforcement and a giant corporation. Through a security services agreement, Dominion Cove Point, the operator of the LNG plant on Cove Point Road, funds the salary of ten sheriff’s deputies, including Dfc. Sloane. They essentially have two employers, the taxpayers of Calvert County and Dominion Cove Point.

The six passengers in the cars which were stopped and searched had participated in protests against Dominion’s Cove Point project, including one the previous day. Within minutes of being pulled over, the head of security at Dominion Cove Point showed up.

Search Without Consent

“I smell something funny,” said Officer Sloane, calling in a K-9 unit. Dfc. Bortchevsky also declared that the second car, driven by Matt Weaver of Baltimore, “smelled like pot.” According to Weaver, it was Officer Bortchevsky who smelled like marijuana. His eyes were red-rimmed, bloodshot and glazed.

All the passengers’ I.D.s were run through the system. If county law enforcement was infected with xenophobia, it should have been soothed by the fact that two passengers were locals.

“We told him we were guests of a resident of Cove Point Beach, but he seemed determined to find something to pin on us,” said Donny Williams of Lusby. They had turned onto the side street to call for directions after they missed their turn. Two residents came to vouch for them, but it went nowhere.

Everyone was patted down, their pockets searched. After being sniffed by the dog, the cars and their contents were meticulously searched. The deputies looked for false bottoms on water bottles, rifled through a backpack full of clothes, and flipped through and read notebooks, supposedly looking for drugs. They took one notebook back to the station and photocopied it.

It was surreal, “a weird scene that didn’t make any sense,” said Kaitlyn Rorke of Baltimore. “Some of us were getting really frightened.”

The extensive rummaging eventually came up with pay dirt: unlabelled pills. They turned out to belong to Rorke, who, for convenience when traveling, had put a few prescription medications in a single bottle instead of bringing all the original bottles with her.

She was arrested and charged with possessing controlled, dangerous substances (Schedule 2, 4). She was later released without bail when a commissioner found that she was held without probable cause, but she must still appear for a court date later.

“They just obviously wanted to get someone,” said Rorke.

A Walk on the Beach

Cove Point Beach is one of the best places to find shark’s teeth, according to Ken Pritchard. He said he had offered to host a beach walk at low tide on Sunday morning.

He was surprised to hear that one of the deputies had mentioned him by name, had in fact repeatedly tried to coax his name out of his guests. “People were invited to my house on Sunday,” he said. “I did not courtesy copy the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department,” he added dryly.

We Are Cove Point, a group which opposes Dominion’s expansion of the LNG plant, had called for a “gentle challenge” to efforts to limit public access to the beach around the lighthouse. It is the tip of the water boundary of Dominion’s facility. Private security and county deputies have been shooing locals off the beach, though they admit it is perfectly legal for them to be there.

Later, Sgt. Steve Jones told a local newspaper that he didn’t know about any gathering of people who oppose the Dominion project. “I wish they had told me about Sunday’s event,” Officer Jones told Baynet. “We didn’t know what to expect. Had we known we could have helped them.”

Whether his helpful attitude is sincere or not, Sgt. Jones is ignoring the fact that out-of-state visitors to Cove Point are typically not treated suspiciously. The Cove Point Lighthouse hosts many weddings with out-of-town guests. An event took place there the very same day, according to Donny Williams, and cars with out-of-state tags were parked in the neighborhood.

At Dominion’s Beck and Call?

Williams said that after Dominion head of security Lou Blancato’s prompt arrival on the scene, he stayed only long enough to get a report from Officer Sloane. Two other men from Dominion security observed “the illegal stop and search which Dominion is paying for,” as Matt Weaver described it.

The conversion of Dominion Cove Point from an LNG import terminal into an export terminal has divided the county between those who look forward to jobs and tax dollars and those who are frightened for their health and safety.

Some think that a risk analysis conducted by the state several years ago shows that the facility was never safe to begin with—the possibility of an ignitable vapor cloud was too great for a residential area housing thousands of people. In addition to the increased risk of liquefying natural gas onsite, they will have to breathe copious toxic emissions too.

Because of its connection to fracking, Cove Point LNG has also been a flashpoint for controversy around the country and attracted “outsiders” to the opposition camp.

A six-mile walk on Saturday, May 30 from Solomons Island to the Cove Point terminal–with almost two hundred people participating—shows that hope of stopping the project, in spite of all the permits approved and construction in progress, hasn’t died.

“We have a lot of momentum on our side right now,” Williams said.

He also believes, as others do, that Dominion views them as a serious threat and is taking measures to undermine, harass and intimidate them, using the sheriff’s deputies, also known as the Special Ops team, as their private security force. The stop and search and Rorke’s arrest were just one example of this.

Dominion is paying the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office $1.5 million, he said, “to have members of the Special Operations Team at Dominion’s beck and call whenever the company desires them while they are also on-duty as public servants.” (In fiscal year 2014, Dominion provided approximately $1.2 million to the Sheriff’s Office, according to the County Administrator in a June 2014 letter to Dominion Cove Point.)

“I’m afraid of what’s happening with police, of Dominion’s influence on police, what they feel their main job is,” said Kaitlyn Rorke. “Whatever your opinion on [Dominion Cove Point], having a police force that all that citizens can trust and depend on is a really vital thing.”

Dominion has billions at stake with Cove Point LNG. In their official capacity, ten sheriff’s deputies serve the interest of public welfare and safety, but instead appear to be protecting the interests of a private corporation, one which pays their salaries. It all comes down to the double-sided badge. When, in an instant, an officer’s badge can flip from black to white and back again, citizens in Calvert County can justifiably ask, “Who do you work for?”

 

Note: The spelling of Kaitlyn Rorke’s first name has been corrected. The article has also been corrected to reflect that Matt Weaver lives in Baltimore, not Pennsylvania.