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In tense council meeting, Montgomery lawmakers hit ‘pause’ on police bill

Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2)
Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

Montgomery County elected officials Tuesday delayed votes on a community policing bill and funding for more school police officers, bowing to pressure from activists who say the presence of law enforcement can be more threatening than safe.

Following weeks of public discussion on the community policing bill, which calls for police to expand “positive, nonenforcement” initiatives and events, the county’s all-Democratic council was divided over whether to approve it.

Council member Craig Rice (District 2), a lead sponsor, criticized the four members who initially asked for the vote to be tabled as “being reactive” to a “fringe group of activists.”

In an emotional opening statement, he described being robbed at gunpoint while a student at Howard University years ago and said he was deeply grateful for the police officer who assisted him.

“No neighborhood of color should have any less representation than any other neighborhood when it comes to police protection,” Rice said in an interview afterward. “For folks to advocate for something different, to me, is racist.”

Council member Will Jawando (At Large), an advocate for criminal-justice reform who wants to delay a vote until more research is done, called Rice’s criticism “very unfair and not true.”

He said he shares activists’ concern over whether police presence make communities of color safer and wants to wait for a report tracking whether minorities are disproportionately targeted by police in the county. He also wants a new police advisory commission to weigh in.

Jawando specifically cited one clause in the community policing bill that calls on the department to “designate a liaison to each population that is disproportionately impacted by inequities.”

“What does that mean exactly, a liaison? What will they do?” Jawando said. “I mean, there’s just so much we haven’t figured out.”

Much of the backlash to the community policing bill has focused on a proposal to “maintain and expand” the county’s $3 million School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which places armed police in public schools.

After an outcry led by some parents of minority and disabled students, who say school-based police disproportionately pose a threat to their children, the Public Safety Committee took the proposal out of the bill.

Activists say they were relieved until early this week, when County Executive Marc Elrich (D) asked the council to approve $1.4 million in state funding for the police department to “provide adequate school resource officer coverage to all [Montgomery County Public Schools] middle schools every day.”

Lawmakers sharply questioned the timing of the request at a hearing Tuesday, especially after Dale Tibbits, a special assistant to Elrich, said the county executive had changed his position and wanted council members to postpone voting on the grant.

“This is not the way to do public policy,” said council member Andrew Friedson (District 1), one of several lawmakers who appeared visibly exasperated. “It’s not transparent, it’s not accountable, and it’s not the way the process is supposed to work.”

When asked by The Washington Post whether he wants to expand the officer program to middle schools, Elrich said in a text message, “I think we need to discuss it more.”

According to the 2018 Maryland Safe to Learn Act, counties must assign an officer to all public schools by the 2019-2020 school year or otherwise ensure that there is “adequate local law enforcement coverage.”

Elrich said that it is unlikely that Montgomery can afford to assign an officer to every school and that he is unsure whether he would want to. The county has asked the state whether the $1.4 million grant can be used for other purposes, such as to add more psychologists to public schools, he said.

In January, more than 30 people testified against the proposal to expand the program to Montgomery’s 40 middle schools, with some calling for it to be ended entirely. In a statement, the Fraternal Order of Police said that recent criticism targeting school resource officers has been “absurd.”

“The women and men who work as SROs are highly trained, extremely competent, and are a great example for other SRO programs around the State of Maryland,” the union wrote. “The hate which certain groups have for police officers and the anti-police sentiment must stop.”

Even without the proposal to expand the school officer program, activists at the Silver Spring Justice Coalition are opposed to the community policing bill. They called for the council to table it until it could be reviewed by the new advisory commission — an oversight committee that was approved last year but is still in the process of being formed.

With council member Nancy Navarro (District 4) out sick, a motion by Evan Glass (At Large) to table the bill failed 4-4.

Rice then made a separate motion to table the bill, which passed. This was a strategic move, he said later, because the council member who makes the motion to table a bill gets to decide when to bring it back to the council.

Glass said he would not have proposed reconsidering the bill until it was reviewed by the police advisory commission.

Rice, however, said he plans to bring it back next Tuesday, when Navarro — also a lead sponsor of the legislation — should be back. He said the bill is likely to pass 5-4.

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