ROCKVILLE – Community-based organizations voiced their support of a county bill that will provide more oversight over local police to try to improve relationships between residents and law enforcement.
The local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), CASA and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) all expressed their support for the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act, also known as the LETT Act, which is sponsored by Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At Large).
The bill, if passed by the council, would require two independent law enforcement officials to investigate any instance where an officer is involved in the death of a person. It would also require if the independent investigators do not recommend filing criminal charges against the officer, that the report is made public after the investigation.
“An independent criminal investigation guards against bias, and the perception of bias. This bill serves all involved: our officers, the prosecutors and our residents,” Jawando said when he introduced the bill back in January.
Members of the three local organizations said that they support the legislation at a hearing on the bill March 5. ACLU member Carlean Ponder said the Montgomery County branch of the Maryland ACLU supports the bill because the bill would “increase community trust in the police force.”
Jawando wrote in a Jan. 10 memorandum that the proposed bill was inspired by the death of 41-year-old Robert White, an unarmed, black man from Silver Spring, who died after being shot by county police officer Anand Badgujar on June 11. Howard County prosecutors, who are in an agreement with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office to prosecute each other’s use of force incidents, did not recommend charging Badgujar for the death.
No report explaining the reason or reasons for not charging Badgujar was made public.
“While the shooting of Mr. White was deemed justified, many in the community are still wondering why Mr. White was approached by the police officer in the first place,” Ponder said.
Ponder said the community received too little information about what led to the death being deemed “justified.”
One goal of the bill is to increase trust between police and members of the community. CASA representative Julio Murillo said during the hearing that CASA supports that goal as well.
“The relationship between the community as a whole and the police need to improve, and we believe that Bill 1-19 helps us strengthen that relationship,” Murillo said. “We want our members to feel safe and confident when they are talking with police officers, but with what’s going across the nation and what happened here unfortunately in Montgomery County Mr. White, that adds tension to a fragile police-community relationship.”
Although Badgujar’s case was prosecuted by Howard County, members of the community who testified said they would like the police investigation to be external as well.
White’s death and the charges being dropped sparked a public outcry in the Silver Spring community. About 150 people gathered in Silver Spring for speeches and a walk-in early August during a vigil to remember White.
Jawando said police departments in Illinois, Utah and Wisconsin are following a similar policy as the one he is proposing, where independent police officials investigated a death caused by an officer. Ponder said the ACLU supports the bill being passed, adding that “a lot more needs to be done” to improve police-community relations.
The other eight members of the council, Craig Rice (D-2), Hans Riemer (D-At Large), President Nancy Navarro (D-4), Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large), Sidney Katz (D-3), Andrew Friedson (D-1), Evan Glass (D-At Large) and Tom Hucker (D-5), are co-sponsoring the bill.
County Police Chief Tom Manger, scheduled to retire next month, said he supported the idea of increased transparency of police in general. However, he also offered that having other departments investigate the incident poses the challenge of law enforcement not responding to the scene fast enough.
NAACP, Montgomery County branch, representative Faith Blackburne said county statistics about use of force incidents of police illustrate ways police can be more transparent. Two-thirds of all use of force incidents in Montgomery County involve people of color, Blackburne said.
“The LETT Act will ensure a fair, independent and impartial (investigation) when those unfortunate events occur,” Blackburne said, referring to officer-involved shootings.
Katie Stauss, a member of community group Takoma Park Mobilization said she supports part of the bill but would like to see an amendment made to the bill and then the amended bill be passed. Rather than police releasing a report only if a prosecutor does not recommend charges, she would like to see a report made public for all cases of death by police.
“Police investigating police is not working in our country, and it’s not working in our county,” Stauss said.
Melissa Clark, who is involved with Moms of Black Boys United for Social Change, said White was shot a few blocks away from where her son who is Black, attends high school. Moms of Black Boys United for Social Change has is origins in a Facebook group that formed in the wake of the death of Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer in Minnesota in 2016. She said she would like to assure the safety of both officers and the safety of black boys and black men and supports the passing of the LETT act.
If the council passes the bill, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, according to the Jan. 15 revision of the proposed legislation.