WHEATON — Policing in Montgomery County has been a hotly debated topic in recent months, following the announcement of Chief Tom Manger’s retirement and a series of high-profile incidents between residents and officers.
As the search for a new leader of Montgomery County Police (MCP) gets underway and to promote transparency, Councilmember Will Jawando and County Executive Marc Elrich hosted a community forum on June 6. It allowed county residents an opportunity to give their input about what they would like to see in a new chief.
The forum, held at Kennedy High School, was live-streamed and recorded so police chief candidates can view the public’s comments before they start the interview process.
According to the county executive’s office, the interview panel has been assembled and candidates will go through the selection process through the end of June. A second interview will be conducted by Elrich and Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine.
Then, another interview process will be conducted by a community-based panel. Elrich said his office expects to have the interview process completed and a finalist selected for confirmation in August.
“I have suggested that if candidates can’t be here, they should watch (the forum) on streaming, and if they can’t do that, they should watch it (in another way) because I will have questions specific to the topics brought up tonight,” Elrich said. “This is an important part of the process. It’s something, I think, that is important that whoever the next police chief is they understand what the expectations and concerns of the community are. So they have a better understanding of what we’re asking them to do.”
In his opening remarks, Jawando commented that the policing system is “out of balance.” He said that in light of released statistics and the killing of Robert White by an MCP officer on June 11, 2018, policing needs to change for the betterment of the county’s community.
“It’s clear that, depending on who you are and what you look like, law enforcement happens differently to you,” he said. “The system is out of balance; you know, when you look at our statistics, African Americans make up 19 percent of the population, but they also account for more than half of the arrests in 2018.
“If you add Latinos, they account for 27 percent of (the) use of force incidents and arrests, while only being about 20 percent of the population. So, we have our people of color comprising 75 percent of arrests and use of force incidents in the county.”
The forum became of special interest for Jawando, who introduced and passed his first piece of legislation, called the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency (LETT) Act, in May. The bill mandates an independent investigation in instances of an officer-involved death of a resident. He sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan in May, urging him to create a state-level law enforcement body that would conduct independent investigations into officer-involved deaths.
Following the passage of the LETT Act, a viral video showing a white female MCP police officer using inappropriate language, including the n-word, towards two African American men at a McDonald’s in White Oak sparked outrage within the county. A protest against the officer’s actions was organized on May 13 in front of the District 3 Police Station. Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Jawando attended the protest while other officials expressed their outrage through statements and social media posts.
During the three-hour forum, Jawando and Elrich took notes as members of the community told their stories of interactions with the police.
Tiffany Kelly said in May, her elementary school-aged son had an interaction with police over colorful play money he had brought to school. Kelly explained that a police officer called her to talk about the play money after it was discovered at a bus stop. She said that she had not heard anything from the school saying there was a problem with the play money.
“At what point does (an officer) say, ‘I am not needed here. This is not a crime,’” Kelly said.
She urged MCP to stop over-policing and to change interventions within Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
Tara Smith, another mother who attended the community forum, told a story about a conversation she had with her young son about the police. She said that when she asked him what he should do if he is stopped by the police, his response was simple: “Run.”
“I don’t like that I have to have this conversation with my nine-year-old son; that’s not okay. It’s not okay that conversation has to be had (and) it’s not okay that conversation is also justified after was transpired with Robert White,” Smith said. “I just want to go on record to say that mothers should not have to have these conversations with our black sons.”
Community members expressed concerns about cultural sensitivity training for police officers.
Pablo Blank asked for better diversity training for police officers. He said that the police could learn from schools that perform extensive diversity training in-person, instead of through a computer program.
“Many staff do diversity training online for two hours; (they) check the boxes and think that is enough, and that is not the case,” Blank said. “But we have a beautiful case in Montgomery County (where) a new school opened, and the principal spent 90% of the training before the school opened. About six days (on diversity training) and creating a new culture… So, I hope that the new police will be trained for many hours in person and not on the computer.”
Community members also expressed concern about transparency in the data that MCP releases to the public. It could reveal implicit bias within the department and challenge the rights of residents when they are interacting with the police, audience members said.
“We need relationships in our communities (with the police)… we need to make sure that everything we do is focused on community policing. It’s not about being adversarial. It’s not about going out and putting on your flak jacket, but it’s about going out and building community,” Jawando said in his closing remarks. “I know there are many, many officers that want to do that work and be part of that.”