ROCKVILLE – Since the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, and the related riots last summer, communities across the country – and in Montgomery County – have been asking, “Could this happen here?”
The answer is yes, but the department does everything possible to prevent it and does not see the kinds of tensions that existed in other places around the nation, said Police Chief Tom Manger. These community relations strategies were the impetus for a discussion between the Montgomery County Police and the County Council about not just race but community policing, how to diversify the force, the importance of training and the upcoming pilot program for body cameras.
The pilot, which will reach about 100 officers including the chief, has been in the works for months, and recruiting started Monday afternoon, according to Manger. He had about 20 volunteers as of Tuesday and said more would come. But Manger also has warned the body cameras are not a panacea.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At large) thanked Manger for always being proactive – when he approached the department about body cameras, Manger was already working on it.
“I find the Montgomery County Police Department to be fairly forward-thinking in how it has approached things and not just in response to crisis,” Elrich said.
Manger said he always strives for “yes” as the answer to three questions: “Are we hiring the right people?” “Are we training them properly? and “Are they accountable for their actions?” The County Council praised him for his work on community relations but also said he needs to do more, particularly in the area of recruitment.
The department is currently about 66 percent white males. Eleven-year chief Manger said that, when compared with 10 years ago, the department has more than doubled the number of Latino officers to 131 and increased the number of Asian officers from 42 to 75.
Council member Craig Rice (D-2) said he had to tell the police the same thing he told the school system: “It’s not enough to say that we’re trying. There has to be a difference.”
But Assistant Chief Betsy Davis said she needs suggestions from the council about where to recruit that the department might have missed. She said it is hard to compete with the pay of other jobs and to require some college credit when other forces do not.
“The other problem is you have to recruit the most qualified individuals, so that’s where there’s a balance,” Davis said.
Rice said he, as the only black member of the council, and Council member Nancy Navarro (D-4), as the only Latina on the council, see the same challenges in politics, but they have to make sure to emphasize the value of public service, not just the salary. But, he said, one class is not going to get rid of racial bias when someone may have grown up in a homogeneous community.
“One class isn’t going to fix that. It’s not,” Rice said. “(But) we are conduits as well; utilize us to help you.”
Manger said the department employs sensitivity training at the beginning of and throughout an officer’s career, which he says makes a difference. He said that when he first started as an officer, many comments at roll call were inappropriate, but now people know there are consequences.
“It is so different than what used to occur, which was not only mean-spirited; it was illegal what was going on and abusive,” Manger said.
In combating officers’ bias, Manger also said he emphasizes that officers have to be able to justify legally what they are doing. For instance, if they are able to articulate they stopped someone because he matched a clothing, area, and facial description of a suspect, that is legal. If the only justification is the person’s race, that’s not.
“If they’re doing it according to the law, they’re not discriminating against someone, whether it’s race or any other issue,” Manger said.
He said training is also better now because it focuses on de-escalation, which helps avoid situations that could require use of force. According to the department’s 2014 use-of-force report, Montgomery County officers used force in 2 percent of arrest situations and in 0.2 percent of the total calls for service.
The department also sent officers to Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray when protests turned to riots in which stores were set ablaze and rocks were thrown at police in riot gear. Davis, who was commanding the officers on the front lines, said the professionalism of her officers was a testament to the importance of training.
“At times we felt so bad. I said, ‘I can’t believe they don’t have the training or equipment,’” Davis said.
District commanders from the department also attended the discussion, and the council packet went into detail about community outreach efforts throughout the different districts, including standing appointments with community organizations, speaking engagements at town forums, the National Night Out in different neighborhoods, hosting Explorer programs for teens, Shop With a Cop and career day.
From 2013 to 2014, crime in the county increased 6.3 percent, according to the department’s annual crime report. Even with the increase, it is the second-lowest crime rate in 10 years, according to the report.