A black man in a sweater, baseball cap and jeans pulled up around 10:30 p.m. to place a sign near the Good Hope Neighborhood Recreation Center in Silver Spring. A park police officer pulled up and started confronting the man, yelling that the man “had no business being here.” He continued yelling until his partner looked down at the sign.
The officer then realized it was County Executive Isiah Leggett.
For Leggett, the county has come a long way from even the 1980s, when he said he was scared to put his picture on campaign signs because he was black. But even now – after winning seven elections for a countywide seat – Leggett said we have much further to go.
“I have witnessed what I considered to be behavior that was not respectful…and so if that can happen to me as county executive, then what do you think of the images of a young teenager who may not be as mature and react differently to that kind of conduct?” he said.
In the wake of the failure to indict white police officers for the deaths of black men in Ferguson and Staten Island, diverse jurisdictions across the country are taking a hard look at police and race. With a county that is 47 percent white, 18.6 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino and 15 percent Asian, Leggett said he is proud of how the police deal with a diverse community.
“If we find people who have done things that are wrong, I’m confident that our police department would hold them accountable,” he said.
And that accountability starts at the top. Although the police department has had police-involved shootings – one for almost every year Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger has been chief – Manger said when shootings happen, the county investigates them properly and holds officers accountable for their actions.
To that end, Leggett and Manger have been working through the details of body-worn cameras for police officers. As The Sentinel broke in October, police hope to bring cameras to the county sometime in 2015 after ironing out legal issues surrounding privacy.
“I’m supportive of that. I worked very hard to get cameras in our (patrol) cars,” Manger said. “But I also know if you look at some of the other states (using body-worn cameras), it’s a mess…It needs to be worked out in Annapolis and I’m hopeful that it’s done in the upcoming session.”
Manger said the department is about halfway through putting cameras in every patrol car, but he knows neither type of camera will capture every incident.
“It’s not some panacea where it’s going to solve every issue with the police,” he said.
Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2) said although the cameras can be helpful and police can use the videos to train or retrain officers, ultimately it comes down to the individual level.
“A police officer has to understand the impact that they have, being that they carry a gun and have a badge and that heightens the impact on people,” Rice said. “They have to hold themselves to a certain decorum, regardless of if you’ve had a bad day.”
Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large), chair of the County Council’s public safety committee, said he is supportive of cameras and is waiting to propose a bill until he sees what the department has done on its own.
Elrich also said it helps that the county does not have extreme poverty in its borders.
“We’ve got areas where we have low-income people but we don’t have areas with grinding poverty,” he said. “We don’t have places where the police is an occupying force.”
But even so, the disparities in Montgomery County can make for tense relations with the police.
Although Rice said he did not feel Montgomery County could ever have a Ferguson-type incident, he said there had been some incidents in his district and he knows people look at him differently.
“It’s easy to think, as a very evolved society and educated society as Montgomery County is, we don’t have racism in Montgomery County. Well, that’s not realistic,” Rice said. “I’ve been in situations where I know that people aren’t looking at me the same as they would someone else who might hold this position and is of a different color. That’s just the reality.”
According to ACLU of Maryland statistics, one of the biggest disparities in Montgomery County is arrests for marijuana possession. Public Policy Director Sara Love said the ACLU is working on a use of force report but does not currently have statistics on that.
In 2010, Love said though African Americans comprised 18 percent of Montgomery County, they accounted for 46 percent of marijuana possession arrests.
“We do talk to and work with the Montgomery County Police. Chief Manger really works toward accountability and integrity in his department and we appreciate that,” Love said. “It’s part of a larger issue of race relations and policing in America and there are a number of things that come into play here. One is just the over-criminalization of communities of color. They are more often arrested. They are more often stopped and frisked.”
Even in jurisdictions that have not had recent incidents, Love said the incidents just brought out building frustration.
“These instances and the press are giving voice to frustrations that people have felt for a long time,” she said.
The frustration at being treated like “second-class citizens” also inspired the NAACP to hold a 120-person march, according to NAACP spokesperson Elbridge James.
“In neighborhoods where I have economic opportunities, I’m more able to voice my concerns or give voice to why I’m here and the police will understand and recognize at that point,” James said. “In other neighborhoods where economic and educational opportunities were not prevalent or were not available, folks do not know how to work with or communicate with police as much. Without that dialogue you have misunderstanding and then consequences of that.”
Manger also said the department has to improve their diversity. Although the department has a proportional number of African American officers – about 18 percent – the Latino and Asian representation is too low, Manger said. Only about 6 to7 percent of the officers are Latino, according to Manger.
Love said it is not enough for the police to reflect the racial diversity of the community.
“It’s making sure that your police force not only reflects the community, but has members of the community,” Love said.
Manger said about 70 percent of the officers live in Montgomery County, which is high relative to many departments.
“I think one of the things folks are talking about is that notion that you feel invested, that this is your community and I can tell you, once officers move here and have kids that are in schools here, they’re invested in the community,” Manger said.
When the NAACP held their protest, police were participants more than patrolman. One officer even spoke at the rally at the end. When contrasted with other more aggravated protests across the country, Manger said the officers learn to support peaceful demonstrations and have experience with different-sized protests every day.
As an example, he said an abortion clinic in Germantown has protesters outside every day, ranging from a handful to hundreds.
“Every day my officers are up there to make sure they can express their views and do it peacefully,” Manger said.
Manger said it also goes back to training. Montgomery County officers go through use of force training each year to make sure they understand the department and state policies.
“Training plays a huge role because I will tell you, you perform just as you train. Especially when you’re under stress you will revert to your training, so the training is crucial. But along with that are your policies. I mean if you’re training to abide by particular policies, you’ve got to make sure your policies are solid and clear,” Manger said.
Manger also said the incidents have sparked questions about militarization of the police. Manger said the county has had three armored vehicles since the 1980s.
“The reason you’re surprised is we use them when they should be used and don’t use them when they shouldn’t be used,” Manger said.