ROCKVILLE — Councilmember Will Jawando’s Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act (LETT) was approved unanimously by the Montgomery County Council on May 7.
The council’s Public Safety Committee voted 3-0 in their discussion of the LETT Act to urge approval from the full council.
Jawando introduced the act on Jan. 15; it was his first piece of legislation while serving on the council.
The LETT Act is meant to increase transparency in situations where there is a police officer-involved shooting. The legislation requires an independent investigation of the incident, and that a report must be sent to the county’s State’s Attorney. If criminal charges are not filed in the case, the report sent to the State’s Attorney would need to be made public.
“I see this act as the unlocking of the door so that we can start discussing dealing with some of the disparities we have here in the county,” Jawando said. “The fact that African Americans make up 55 percent of those arrested – despite making up only 19 percent of the population – the fact that our Latino community is overrepresented in our justice system here in the county, we need to look at those numbers, and we need to find out how these interactions start and how we can prevent them.”
Council Vice President Sidney Katz, who also sits on the Public Safety Committee, said that the bill received a series of amendments between its introduction to the council and its passing.
Katz said that the Public Safety Committee approved amendments that would require the county executive to report to the council, allow routine police work alongside the independent investigation, and release reports of the incident publicly. He explained that the committee rejected an amendment requested by the police department to have a sunset provision for some of the requirements of the bill.
Council President Nancy Navarro noted during the press conference that the issue of trust in law enforcement has come up often in discussions with community members. This has been especially true for parents who have children of color, she said.
“When you look at the data, you have to understand that numbers don’t lie, and so this opens up a conversation for us as policy makers to make sure that we continue to work very closely with our police department,” she said.
Jawando worked with local community justice organizations in drafting the bill.
Laura Wallace, Montgomery County Organizer for Jews United for Justice, attended Jawando’s press conference.
“There were some things that we were hoping would be in the bill that are not there; for instance, we were hoping it would include serious bodily injury in addition to police-involved killings,” she said. “But we do agree with Councilmember Jawando that this can be a key to unlocking future reforms.”
Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group focused on Latino and immigrants’ issues also supports the legislation, according to Julio Murillo, who serves as a government and strategic relations specialist for the organization.
Murillo said that the Latino population is subject to similar experiences of discrimination by police.
“The reason we support it (the legislation) is because we feel that the Latino community and the black community share that same distrust in police, and that’s based on the experiences both communities have had with the police,” Murillo said. “So, we feel that in the worst-case scenario, (if) someone dies at the hands of police that this law would ensure an independent investigation for that victim and their family.”
He explained that Casa de Maryland is a big proponent of criminal justice and would like to see legislation that goes even further than what the LETT Act mandates.
“But we understand that this is a first step in the right direction, and we can use this momentum to continue to push for other policies on community relations with the police,” he said.
Steven Sellers Lapham, a community member from Gaithersburg, expressed concern that the act still allows police to investigate one of their own, even if the case is being handled by another police department.
He suggested the addition of civilian oversight or involvement in the investigation.
Jawando responded that the only problem with citizens’ involvement in such investigations is that police are more often the people with the right kind of training and skills.
“My bill focused on how to remove the responsibility of investigating out of our police department to an outside department, whether it be federal, state or local. That helps create more of a level of independence from, like the buddy of the guy that killed someone, investigating the incident,” Jawando said.
Jawando added that now is an opportune time to put legislation like this in place, as Montgomery County looks for a new police chief.
He also announced that he will be holding a forum to hear from community members what they would like to see in a new police chief. The forum will be held June 6 at Kennedy High School.