The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted to require investigations by outside law enforcement officers of police-involved deaths in the county, becoming the first major jurisdiction in the Washington region to do so.
A spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich said so far no outside agencies have been interested in doing Montgomery’s investigations. Elrich (D) plans to work with lawmakers in Annapolis and the office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to try to create a “statewide investigation unit for every county in the state,” spokesman Ohene Gyapong said.
Wisconsin and Utah require outside investigations of deaths involving police occurring within their states. Minnesota, Georgia and Tennessee have designated state agencies for that purpose, according to a 2018 report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association on officer-involved shooting investigations.
Under the Montgomery legislation, Elrich is required to search for an agency that will agree to conduct the investigations — and to submit a report to the council detailing his search if he cannot find a partner.
The bill, sponsored by freshman council member Will Jawando (D-At Large) and co-sponsored by the rest of the nine-member, all-Democratic council, sparked debate since he first introduced it in January.
Some groups wanted the measure to go farther, requiring the investigations to be done by civilians, not other law enforcement officers, while former police chief J. Thomas Manger had pointed out the difficulties in finding another agency willing to take on the investigative role.
The law requires the investigation be done by two sworn officers with experience in homicide and use-of-force investigations, and it requires their report be made public, with some exceptions.
Jawando said he wanted to increase community trust in the county’s police force, especially after last summer’s fatal police shooting of an African American man who was walking through a Silver Spring neighborhood. The shooting was found to be justified, but community groups were frustrated and left with questions about how that investigation was conducted.
“We still have some issues here in Montgomery County,” Jawando said at a news conference on the steps of the council office building in Rockville after the unanimous vote. “This would go in the right direction for making sure that when our police officers are involved in the death of a resident, that we have an independent investigation and that investigative report be made public so that the community can look at it and learn from it.”
The county has for years had an arrangement with the Howard County state’s attorney’s office, with each reviewing the other’s officer-involved deaths and determining whether criminal charges should be filed — an agreement that was formalized in writing last month. Jawando said the new legislation would “complement” the agreement.
Carlean Ponder, an activist with the police accountability and transparency subgroup of the Montgomery County chapter of the ACLU, said she applauded Jawando’s efforts, but she “would like to see some civilian participation.”
“This bill still allows police to continue to investigate police,” Ponder said.
Also Tuesday, the council unanimously voted to establish a new limit on lead in school drinking water outlets of 5 parts per billion (ppb) — lower than the current state standard of 20 ppb. Bill sponsor Tom Hucker (District 5) said the change reflects updated understandings about the dangers of lead, especially in children.
Montgomery County Public Schools has shut down the 283 water fountains and bubblers that tested above 5 ppb but below 20 ppb, the district’s spokesman said.
Another measure that passed unanimously, sponsored by council member Evan Glass (At Large), stops the county from considering salary history when determining pay for new employees. Advocates say asking for pay history keeps pay low for women and minorities, who as groups make less than white men.
“When we rely on salary history to set future wages, we only perpetuate the income gaps that exist,” Glass said.
Some members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO), which represents county workers, held up signs in protest. Last week, the council told the union to renegotiate its contract with Elrich’s office, saying the 9.4 percent raises some 1,200 members were slated to get were too high.
“What about our pay raise?” one member shouted from the audience as Glass spoke.