The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Maryland’s largest suburb, an ambitious police overhaul faces roadblocks

Protesters in Clarksburg, Md., after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last year. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

After the killing of George Floyd last year, residents of Maryland’s Montgomery County held more than 120 protests against police violence, joining communities across the country in a wave of civil unrest not seen since the 1960s.

Officials and lawmakers in the wealthy, left-leaning suburb promised change, adding funding for mobile crisis units to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill residents and passing a “use-of-force” law that, among other things, requires officers to act when they see colleagues using what appears to be excessive force.

More proposals are on the table. But roadblocks loom.

The all-Democratic county council is split over key proposals, most notably a bid to bar police from working in public schools. Some changes hinge on state legislative action, and others face pushback from Montgomery’s police department and police union, which call them inappropriate for the suburb of 1 million. Rank-and-file officers on the 1,300-member force say the changes would make the county less safe.

Council member Sidney Katz (District 3), who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, favors more incremental changes and said he sees the county’s main challenge as “restoring trust in the police.”

“Montgomery has a very fine police department in general, but we have individual examples of when things have not gone the way they should,” Katz said.

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Local activists want elected officials to go much further and say a growing number of community groups — including parent teacher associations and church congregations — support dramatic change. They worry that disagreements among county leaders, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, could take momentum away from their cause.

“Last year, the public was so overwhelmingly angry that our decision-makers and leaders were actually willing to pay attention,” said Danielle Blocker, executive director of the local activist group Young People for Progress. “Now, I wonder if they’ll continue.”

In January, plainclothes Gaithersburg police officers fatally shot Kwamena Ocran, a 24-year-old Black man. In October, prosecutors said they would not charge a White county police sergeant who six months earlier shot and killed Finan Berhe, 30, who also was Black.

The two incidents have “sustained outrage” among activists and served as a sobering public reminder, said Katie Stauss, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition. “People who didn’t think about these issues before have started to make the connection that what they see nationally is actually happening right here.”

Police leaders say shootings by officers don’t necessarily mean reckless policing. Berhe was armed with a knife, body-worn camera footage shows. Gaithersburg police say Ocran had a gun, and the investigation into his case is ongoing.

Police shootings database: records of every fatal shooting in the U.S. by a police officer since 2015

Some changes recently mandated by lawmakers, such as banning “chokeholds,” mimicked existing department policy, said county Police Chief Marcus Jones. He questioned data showing racial disparities in policing, saying such calculations are oversimplified or lacking context.

In neighborhoods hit hardest by crime, many of which are majority Black and Latino, residents often ask for more police officers, not fewer, Jones said. “Are we going to have more of a reactive police department, or are we going to remain a proactive police department?” he added. “Where is this taking us?”

The council is considering five bills relating to policing, including mandating civilian oversight over police discipline and requiring that officers report demographic information about residents they stop.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) has commissioned an external audit of the police department that is scheduled to produce preliminary results in June. And on Thursday, the county’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force released its first report, with 87 recommendations that include reducing police in certain districts and requiring incident reports every time officers draw their weapons, regardless of whether they fire.

In neighboring Prince George’s County, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks said Friday that she will implement 46 of 50 recommendations made by a policing task force there.

The issue that has arguably captured the most public attention in Montgomery is whether to eliminate the $3 million School Resource Officer program, which places police in public schools. The task force, which Elrich convened in August, recommends getting rid of the program, though co-chair Bernice Mireku-North said the issue generated significant tension during discussions with the police department and the union.

“We’re living in an unjust society. Community members were clear in that and wanted the [task force] to be self-aware of the racism and injustice that exists,” Mireku-North said. “That wasn’t always received warmly.”

The council has dueling bills on the issue — one, from at-large members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer would remove all police from schools; the second, introduced Tuesday by Katz and council member Craig Rice (District 2), asks for the program to be reformed but not eliminated or slashed.

Many student leaders and youth activists say they want the program gone, citing disproportionate arrest rates for Black, Latino and disabled students on school grounds. But two dozen high school principals have said they want to keep it in place.

The county board of education was supposed to set its position in January but voted to extend the deadline to May. The council may wait until then to act, said council President Tom Hucker (District 5).

Jones, the police chief, said school-based officers make relatively few physical arrests in schools and have valuable relationships with students.

“Much of the public doesn’t see the relationships these SROs have with kids, even kids who are in trouble,” the chief said.

Lee Holland, corporate vice president of Montgomery County’s police union, called the school officer bills an example of council overreach into a matter that should be decided by Elrich and the school system. “The county shouldn’t be creating laws for every single thing that deals with police,” he said.

Elrich said he “would rather not” have a permanent police presence in schools and would like to hire more counselors and therapists. He stopped short of saying he would end the program, however, noting that he wants to confirm that doing so is possible under state law.

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While members of the task force broadly agreed that policing should be “reimagined,” there were heated disagreements on what that meant, said Mireku-North, the co-chair. Some wanted to toss out existing practices. Others said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that new proposals would be fairer or more effective.

The tensions seem to reflect deeper ideological rifts shaping police reform efforts in liberal communities nationwide

In Minneapolis, some city council members backed off a widely reported pledge to defund the police department, in favor of more incremental reforms. A recent Bloomberg News analysis found that most of the 50 biggest cities in the country maintained or increased their police budgets in 2021.

In Montgomery, Katz said he supports a strategy that focuses on additional training for officers, but others want more drastic changes. Riemer would “restructure the police department’s core powers with discipline and accountability.” Jawando, who supports moving money from police to social services, said he wants officials to challenge the assumption that “more funding for police equals more safety.”

“I really think we’ll have missed the moment if we don’t look at things differently,” he said.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz (At Large), one of two lawmakers still undecided about the school resource officer program, said he hears myriad perspectives from the Latino and immigrant residents who frequently contact his office.

Some plead for more police protection against gang members who stalk their neighborhoods; others beg for fewer officers, fearful of being referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nearly all want elected officials to act quickly.

“I feel that urgency,” Albornoz said. “But I also feel the weight of wanting to get this right.”

Jones said the criticism from Montgomery’s elected officials in the past two years has weighed on officer morale. “There’s no need to put sugar on it,” he said. “That’s exactly what has happened.”

Alsobrooks says she’ll implement dozens of policing recommendations in Prince George’s

Even when elected officials agree, they’re not always able to act quickly. Both Elrich and the task force support a council proposal to move automated traffic enforcement from the police department to the transportation department, but the state must give its permission. A local bill to overhaul disciplinary practices has been shelved as delegates in Annapolis debate broader changes statewide.

The council voted unanimously in July for a $600,000 expansion of the 24/7 mobile crisis unit, but it took the health department six months to hire five civilian therapists, the first of whom will start in March.

Similarly, six months after the council passed its “use-of-force” law, the police department has yet to start training officers on the new policies. Jones, who has until next week to tell lawmakers how he intends to implement the rules, said he is still trying to reach agreements with the union on how to interpret parts of the law.

“Training will occur after the policy is put into place,” he said.

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