ROCKVILLE—In his first term on the Montgomery County Council, Councilmember Will Jawando passed the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act, participated in community conversations about race in the county and urged transparency in the search process for a new chief of police.
However, two days after hosting a public forum in June alongside County Executive Marc Elrich on the state of policing in Montgomery County, Jawando was pulled over by a state trooper. Jawando called traffic stops like his a common occurrence that is “disproportionately against African Americans and people of color and are ripe for racial profiling.”
In an exclusive question-and-answer session, Jawando reflects on the forum for a new police chief, actions taken by the county police department and his recent traffic stop incident.
(Editor’s note: Questions were alerted for clarity.)
What are your thoughts on how the June 6 police chief forum went?
“I was pleased with the turnout by the public. We heard a variety of concerns and personal stories that will help inform the county executive about concerns and priorities related to finding a new police chief.”
What were three main takeaways you took from the forum?
“My top takeaway is that there is a very real sense among many in the community that they are scared of and uncomfortable with police interaction – not just Montgomery County Police – but law enforcement in general. When I was an AmeriCorps member assigned to the Montgomery County Police Department nearly 20 years ago, I saw firsthand the practice of incentivizing higher numbers of arrests and citations. I believe this has created a deeper gulf of distrust, particularly among residents of color and immigrants. There are many residents who have personal experiences with police and feel strongly that there is a diminished level of trust and community connection. This must be improved, so residents feel safe and police officers can do their jobs effectively.
“Other takeaways are that there are many people with a lot of different concerns about how police are handling their jobs in Montgomery County. Almost all of it is based on personal experience, such as who they are, where they live in the county, and what kind of interactions they have had with the police. For instance, police handle calls for animal control and abandoned cars, in addition to other far more serious calls.
“We heard from some residents that there isn’t a big enough police presence in their neighborhood, while others felt there were too many police in their neighborhood, harassing certain communities. We had people who felt strongly that police are doing a great job, while others had concerns or deep mistrust of the police. This was a good forum, because it drew out a broad sampling of viewpoints – but we also see evidence that outcomes have a lot to do with who you are, where you live, and the basis of your interaction with the police.”
Do you know why there were no MCP officers present at the forum? Was it purposeful to not have officers there? (Editor’s note: The county police department was asked to comment on this question concerning their presence at the forum. MCP directed our questions to the Montgomery County government press office, electing not to comment at this time.)
“There were some officers in plain clothes who attended to observe and participate as citizens. When my staff and the county executive staff met to discuss this forum, we wanted individuals to speak freely about their experiences and what they are looking for in a new police chief.
“We did not limit any member of our community from attending or speaking, but we did decide against armed police officers visibly present because we knew it could be intimidating to some who may want to speak about their personal experience with the police present.”
Takoma Park Police Chief Antonio DeVaul was one of those officers that was visibly present at the forum. What are your thoughts of his presence and do you think he was one of the candidates for the MCP Chief position?
“I have known Chief DeVaul for a long time, and I was not surprised to see him present as someone I assume is interested in the broader conversation about criminal justice reform and local law enforcement policy. I believe Mr. Elrich has a number of candidates, and while one of my staff will serve on as interview panel, we’ll be limiting our public comments at this time to how we want to see an open and transparent process in defining what kind of police chief we’d like to see at the top of MCP.”
Why do you think forums like this most recent one are important?
“Community forums are a powerful way for public officials to maintain connections to the community and keep a dialogue open even during tense moments. This is especially true at this moment in Montgomery County, as we seek a new police chief amid questions about the conduct of certain officers and the culture of the department.
“A few months ago, I authored a letter to the County Executive, signed by all my colleagues on the county council, calling for a more transparent and open selection process that would include community participation and input. I am pleased this forum took place and that Mr. Elrich has included community members on interview panels.”
What are some things you would like to see MCP change?
“I think we need to put community policing at the forefront. There is a mountain of public data that demonstrates the power of community policing in building better ties between the police and the residents, and in reducing crime. This means tracking and prioritizing community interactions in the same way the department tracks arrests, citations and tickets issued.
“I also would want to see more officers living in the county, so they are part of the community they are charged with serving and protecting. Right now, only about 35 percent of the police force live in-county. I believe that living outside the county puts officers at a great disadvantage in doing their jobs. By living here, they will be invested in knowing the community and the people and will have a better understanding of the communities they are policing.”
What do you think MCP already does well?
“A lot. We are incredibly fortunate to have a professional department with a high degree of training and education. Ours is a police force that is becoming more gender-balance. However, while there is more representation on the force of people of color, more work can be done there, particularly in the higher ranks.”
You were recently stopped by Maryland State Police and in your Instagram post, you said it was racially motivated. Why do you think your traffic stop last week was racially motivated?
“The incident has actually highlighted the need to have conversations about traffic stops like the one I had (on June 8). I want to make it clear that while I braked my car to stop at the line, the reason the officer gave for pulling me over was that he said my front tires rolled partially onto the line itself. I was not over the line, and I was in an equal position to the other cars at the intersection. There is a crosswalk, but it is located on the other side of the intersection. This was not a situation where I ran the light or otherwise broke the law.
“These types of stops are routine for people of color. It’s unfortunate that if you’re a person of color, you can be pulled over for the kinds of infractions that are rare to see a white motorist stopped for – infractions like having an air freshener hanging in your rearview mirror, or a cracked tail light, or a spot of mud partly obstructing an otherwise perfectly placed and current registration sticker.”
Have you experienced traffic stops like this one before in Montgomery County?
“Yes, I have. Almost never have I received a summons from these interactions, but many people face an uneven result of having their car searched or police looking for anything they can find to consider an arrest or citation. I believe the reason I haven’t been ticketed in the past is partly because I know my rights as a lawyer – and I have been trained and maintain my training in police interactions. For instance, asking for permission to reach for my wallet to draw out my license and registration, always keeping my hands in plain view, and always remaining calm.”
Do you think that an elected official like yourself being stopped by police undercuts the work the council has been doing on racial equity and community conversations about race?
“No. My traffic stop was an example of what is going on, and that’s helpful, because it brings the conversation to the surface where we need to have it.
“Frankly, some in our community have taken to emailing my staff and posting on social media some pretty horrible and racist things. You would think that they would know this is a public record, and that they are making their names – and their racist words – part of the public debate.
“All this does is prove a point: We have a problem. It is not unique to Montgomery County, and in fact, we are a much more progressive county, but the current system is full of racial disparities – in housing, employment, education, literally everywhere – and policing is just one area.”
What is something you would want the public to know about the police chief search?
“Every resident of Montgomery County is empowered to take part in this search. You should know you have the right – and for some, the responsibility – of reaching out to the county executive and the county council to let them know your priorities and expectations for a new chief, and what your personal experience with MCP has meant to you.”