The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery police did not adequately record traffic stop data for 14 years, report says

A Montgomery County police officer walks down Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., in 2017. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Police Department did not adequately collect and record information on “an unknown number” of traffic stops for 14 years, potentially violating state law, an independent oversight body says in a new report.

The county’s police chief said data on certain types of traffic stops was not collected until earlier this year but asserted that the department had not breached state law.

Lawmakers and civil rights activists said they were perturbed by the report from Montgomery’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO), which comes amid ongoing debate in the county over police accountability and racial justice. The reporting lapse likely affected data that elected officials have relied on for years to make public policy, they said, and may have concealed signs of unlawful traffic stops.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said “prolonged noncompliance with traffic stop reporting requirements” is up to the Maryland Statistical Analysis Center and the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to address. That commission is meant to inform state officials when agencies fail to record this information, but in a statement Wednesday, the commission said it has never been notified of an agency that did not comply.

Should police be in charge of traffic enforcement? In a suburb beset by racial inequities, lawmakers aren’t sure.

“Even if what they did comported in the law, it distorted the data,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), who has overseen the police department since he took office in December 2018. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

“I don’t understand how this could have occurred,” said council member Sidney Katz (D-District 3), chair of the council’s public safety committee. Katz, who has often advocated for more moderate changes to policing, said he’s waiting until the council reviews the report in the fall to make final conclusions, but thinks the issue “needs to be discussed.”

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who has called for more dramatic changes to police practices, said “there needs to be accountability” for the reporting lapse. Along with some state lawmakers, he called for a deeper investigation to ascertain the extent of the missing data.

“For years we’ve had people speaking out about bias in traffic stops,” Riemer said. “And all the while, the core instrument of oversight was . . . less than effective.”

A 2020 study by the OLO showed that Montgomery police disproportionately stopped Black motorists, especially in majority-White neighborhoods. The yawning disparities did not definitively prove bias, researchers said, but “signal that unconstitutional policing could be a problem” in the liberal, affluent suburb of 1 million.

Maryland has required since 2001 that law enforcement agencies document and submit data on all traffic stops, including demographic information of the motorist involved. These requirements were recently expanded as part of a statewide historic police overhaul.

In Montgomery, however, the police department had an internal policy from 2007 to 2021 that, when officers did not issue written citations, they would “provide the citizen with the officer’s business card and verbally inform the citizen of the reason for the stop.” This language was included in an appendix between the county’s police union and county government, and confirmed by police leaders.

“Based on this provision,” the OLO report said, “Executive Branch representatives report that an unknown number of reportable traffic stops performed by MCPD officers from 2007 to January 2021 have occurred where data have not been collected, recorded, and reported to the State, as required by state law.”

In an interview Wednesday, Police Chief Marcus Jones disputed aspects of the report’s findings while conceding that there had been certain data reporting lapses.

Jones said initially that he was unaware of the state law mandating that officers report all traffic stops, even if they did not result in citations. He said later in the interview that he was aware of the law and that Montgomery’s 1,300 sworn officers did in fact report all traffic stops through the state’s e-ticketing system, regardless of whether they ended in written citations. The department’s reporting policy, as referenced by OLO, did not reflect how officers had been trained, he said.

“I don’t believe we were in violation of state law,” Jones said. “For [OLO] to make that allegation, it’s incorrect.”

Jones also said, however, that in January, before the OLO began studying the issue, he implemented a new mandate that officers provide written documentation of all traffic stops, including those that do not result in citations. The change was necessary because data on traffic stops ending in verbal warnings “was not being captured,” he said.

He did not respond to questions asking why the policy change was necessary if officers had been adequately reporting traffic stop data before 2021.

“If we want to live in the past, there’s a lot of things we can talk about. But what’s done is done,” said Jones, who took over the department in 2019. “We need to look at processes to improve the department and we need to make sure that we’re in compliance. That’s where I’m moving us toward.”

Elrich said county attorneys will have to determine whether the earlier policy was in line with state rules. “The important thing in my mind is that it got changed,” he added.

Maryland enacts landmark police overhaul, first state to repeal police bill of rights

Jones said he does not know how many traffic stops from 2007 to 2021 ended in verbal warnings. Deciding whether to issue tickets is “an officer’s discretion,” he said, so until the recent policy change, the department did not have a way to quantify the number of times officers were making traffic stops that ended in verbal warnings or whether some officers were doing it more frequently than others.

Updated traffic stop data will be released next year, he said.

The county’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, said it is a “moot point” on whether traffic stop data was collected because since 2015, county officers have worn body cameras that record all traffic stops.

But Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, said it’s a “huge problem” that data on traffic stops was not comprehensively recorded, even if body-camera footage is available. The lapse may have concealed incidents where motorists’ rights were violated or skewed broader trends in traffic enforcement, he said.

In 2019, the committee and the ACLU of Maryland sued the Montgomery police department for placing a Black family in a “terrifying hour-long detention” during a traffic stop. The interaction was captured on body-worn cameras but did not appear in the state’s database of traffic stops, Smith said. The suit was settled in 2020.

“Police do a really good job at collecting information on arrests, convictions and crimes. But information around stops, searches — the quality of that data tends not to be good,” said Smith, who investigated law enforcement agencies as a former U.S. Justice Department official. He said he is worried that other police departments in Maryland could also be falling short of the state’s requirements.

Spearheaded by Black lawmakers in Annapolis, Maryland’s reporting law was enacted in 2001 amid a national debate over racial profiling on the country’s roads and highways.

The bill stated that “each time a law enforcement officer makes a traffic stop,” they are obliged to record a host of information, including the location of the stop and the race of the driver.

“Maryland has long prided itself on having one of the strongest laws in the country on having mandatory traffic stop data reporting,” said Del. Vaughn M. Stewart III (D-Montgomery). “It’s disturbing to learn about the [missing data] because as state legislators, we base decisions on that data.”

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

Police de-escalation training gaining renewed clout as law enforcement seeks to reduce killings

The Montgomery County executive wanted his new police chief to be an outsider. But his favorite candidates kept bailing out.