WHEATON – Residents took turns giving suggestions about what to consider in the county police chief search during a town hall attended by County Executive Marc Elrich and Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At Large).
Several people at the event held at John F. Kennedy High School and told their stories about negative encounters with Montgomery County Police (MCP). Residents or expressed concerns they had about issues such as police training. Some also listed existing problems they would like the chief to solve when he or she arrives.
Denise Young, a Silver Spring resident, said both of her black sons had been stopped and questioned by police before they were 18 years old. Police stopped one of her sons when he was walking home from the bus stop at night and started asking him questions about himself and about what he was doing. White men and white boys would not receive the same questioning, Young said.
“They (police) don’t know anything about these young men out here, other than they’re black and they breathe,” Young said.
Young said she would have liked the town hall conversation to be two-way, in which residents could ask questions of Elrich and Jawando.
“While storytelling and sharing those kinds of things are important, it’s also important to be able to have a question-and-answer period,” said Young. “I thought that was a huge mistake, not being able to have a facilitated dialogue.”
Several people in the audience said they found out about the event when they received an email from the county. Some of the people said they rarely attend community engagement events, admitting that the town hall was the first county forum they have attended.
Derwood resident Carmen Phelps, who first heard about the event from a county email, said she went to the forum to listen. She wanted to learn more about what is important to Elrich and Jawando.
“(I attended) to get a sense of the council’s priorities when it comes to policing and just to get greater perspective in terms of the county executive’s agenda relative to policing, and community relations and police culture,” Phelps said. “I know it’s a new (county) administration.”
Silver Spring resident Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, co-founder of racial justice organization Racial Justice NOW!, said she is concerned for the safety of her African American children. Her worries have risen given high-profile incidents involving the police that resulted in deaths of black men in recent years.
“I’m here because I’m a mother of two African American children, but I have an 11-year-old African American son,” Sankara-Jabar said.
Sankara-Jabar said she fears for the future of her son because of the incident that occurred with 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The African American boy was shot by 26-year-old police officer Timothy Loehmann in 2014 when he was playing with an airsoft replica toy gun near his home. Sankara-Jabar said she worries that a similar interaction could happen with her son.
“In my mind as a parent, the police is something that’s very important. And I want to make sure I have input in this process on (selecting) the new chief,” said Sankara-Jabar.
The Rev. Carol Flett, a retired Episcopal priest who attends St. Luke’s in Bethesda, said she observed similarities between stories about negative encounters with police shared during the town hall with comments made during at a similar event in 2016. She has helped organize a few community discussions in conjunction with the county over the past four years.
Flett, who is white, said she did not speak at the microphone because she wanted to make sure people of color had opportunities to share their concerns with Jawando and Elrich.
“The question is when they’re heard, is there anything that’s being done to change the circumstances that caused the particular event?” Flett said.
County employees and officials promoted a county survey about equity before opening the floor for comments. Young said she could not take the survey seriously, and she believed it was poorly written. It included several questions about racial and ethnic background, she recalled.
Silver Spring resident Rodrigue Vital said he attended the town hall because he wanted to see the relationship between residents and police improve.
“It’s almost true that every person of color has experienced some type of discomfort (around police),” said Vital, who is African American.
When asked to clarify “discomfort,” Vital said, “Some type of racial profiling. I’ve had my own stories.”
Vital said he believes residents should respect police just as police should respect residents. Racial profiling requires more attention.
“It’s (racial profiling is) blatant; it’s not really something that some people should take lightly,” said Vital.
Young said she believes the people responsible for recruiting a future chief should ask about his or her relationship to the black community and about his or her recruiting practices.
“You have a racist county; I can’t mince words on that,” Young said.