SILVER SPRING – A bill that would bring more transparency and keep the public informed following a police-involved shooting resulting in a death unanimously passed out of the council’s public safety committee April 12.
It is expected to be presented to the Montgomery County Council next month for its approval. If council approves the bill, known as the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act (LETT), it would go into effect next year.
According to LETT, the county executive would be required to ensure that an independent investigation is performed following every officer-involved death, utilizing at least two independent investigators with experience and expertise. Those investigators must be employed by a local law enforcement agency not in Montgomery County, which could be a federal or state enforcement agency.
LETT also would require that the independent investigators’ report be made public if it recommended that no criminal charges be filed against the officer.
The idea of the bill, which is sponsored by Councilman Will Jawando (D-At Large), is to make sure the public has confidence in the process and the police department when a citizen is killed.
The impetus for the bill arose following the police-shooting death of Robert White, 41, of Silver Spring by Officer Anand Badguiar. A review by Howard County and Montgomery County Police concluded that Badguiar’s actions were lawful and shooting White was justified. But since White’s death, some residents have staged vigils and marches, proclaiming that White’s shooting was not justified and that they should have been kept informed of the investigation.
Much of what the bill spells out already is county police practice but currently is not required by law, according to Acting Chief of Police Russell Hamil III. Currently, the county police send all police-involved shootings to Howard County for that department to investigate.
After the bill was voted out of committee, Jawando said he was happy and that enough of his ideas were included in the bill “to maintain the integrity” of transparency.
“I am happy that it will now go for a full vote,” he said.
“Overall, it’s a compromise,” he said, adding, “It’s a good start.”
Jawando would have preferred that the county executive not have an out if he is unable to find another jurisdiction willing to investigate, he said. Under the proposed act, the executive must make “good faith efforts” when locating another law enforcement agency to perform an investigation.
Councilman Sidney Katz, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he was fine with giving the county executive “an off ramp” if another police department could not be found, noting, “The county executive is going to have to make a good faith effort. That is what this bill is all about.”
The act would require that independent investigators submit a final written report to the State’s Attorney and make the written report public, when allowed by law. If releasing the report would deprive an officer of his or her right to a fair trial, then it would not be released, under this act.
Also, if releasing the report could put a witness in jeopardy or disclose the identity of a confidential source, it would not be released.
“One of my greatest concerns is that everyone remains safe,” Katz said. “Confidential sources should be able to come forward.”
Katz told Acting Chief Hamill, “You’ve got to do what’s correct. You’ve got to keep people safe.”
During the one-hour meeting, Hamill said he was concerned that a body could lay where it was shot for several hours, awaiting investigators from another department.
“I don’t want my officers to stand around with their hands in their pocket waiting,” he said.
Hamill also noted that he must follow state law, noting that for instance, he is not allowed to release the results of an autopsy.
“To be clear, we want transparency,” Hamill said.
“Much of this,” he said, referring to the act, “We do this. We do this already.” However, he noted, “There’s always room for improvement.”
Robert Drummer, the council’s senior legislative attorney, explained, “If there is another state law, we don’t have the authority to amend that. This is all about when we have discretion.”
Councilman Gabe Albornoz said that while he agrees with the bill, he would prefer for the state to set the standards for all Maryland police departments.
“I think everybody agrees, the state is where this belongs. The state, hopefully, will push for independent investigations,” Albornoz said, referring to state legislators in Annapolis.