More and more people in his suburban Maryland county and across the country are calling for police reform. What that looks like, however, is still hotly contentious.
On the left, activists want to “defund the police” — that is, to divert funding from police budgets to community programs that preempt the need for police intervention.
Others — including many local, state and federal lawmakers — say that approach is too extreme, instead calling for stronger regulations or more officer training. A majority of Jawando’s council colleagues have not readily embraced the “defund” movement, and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) dismissed large cuts to the police budget as a “utopian vision.”
In three weeks, Jawando (D-At Large), 37, has fielded more than a thousand emails from people demanding political action. He has seen tweets and Facebook posts calling him a “race baiter” with a vendetta against the county’s 1,200 police officers. And he has heard from the police chief, who says the department needs more money, not less, to avoid misconduct.
Jawando knows there are risks in pushing for change too quickly — or not quickly enough. Any misstep, he said, will affect what he is able to achieve for the 200,000 black people he represents. During a recent protest in Gaithersburg, he tried to clarify where he stands.
“I have been a black man for my entire life, and I have known, my entire life, that black lives matter,” he said. “For every two black men of my age, one has been arrested. I’m that one.”
Black teenagers stood with their immigrant parents, listening intently. Young white families held up signs that read, “White silence is violence.”
“We need to invest in our communities, and we need to disinvest from the things that give us these horrible outcomes in policing,” Jawando continued. “That’s what ‘defund the police’ means to me.”
He paused, allowing the applause to rise, then quiet.
“And I support it. I do.”
Celesete Donawa, 31, swept her braids to her back and cheered. This was the first time she had heard any official utter the words “defund the police,” she said. She had not known of Jawando until that point. Now, she wanted to hear more from him.
“He gets it,” she said, cradling a baby on her hip. “He’s experienced it. He understands.”
Born to an African immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas, Jawando grew up in a rental apartment in Silver Spring before working his way through law school and joining the Obama administration.
He was elected to the council in 2018, one of four left-leaning freshmen. Younger and more outspoken on criminal justice issues than the council’s other African American member, Craig Rice (D-District 2), Jawando quickly became the county’s leading voice on police reform.
His first bill — the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act — requires an outside investigation of police-involved deaths and was the first bill on police changes passed in Montgomery in a decade, according to the council staff. Last summer, Jawando was the first local official to apologize for the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man, Robert White.
Some critics, however, say his proposals sometimes seem more symbolic than effective.
In November, Jawando co-sponsored a bill to ban discrimination against natural hairstyles, though workplace attorneys and the county’s Office of Human Rights said such cases of discrimination are rare in Montgomery.
More recently, in response to the economic crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic, he introduced the Renter Relief Act to prohibit landlords from raising rent during and for 90 days after a public emergency.
Jawando said his office received multiple reports of landlords raising rent, 10 of which he shared with The Washington Post. But his findings were questioned by the county’s chamber of commerce and former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin, who argued that Jawando should have gathered more evidence of rent gouging before introducing the bill.
These criticisms, however, pale in comparison to the heat Jawando has received for his statements and bills addressing policing.
Last June, he posted a picture on Instagram saying he had been racially profiled by Maryland state police. The police said they pulled over Jawando for bringing his vehicle to a stop on a stop line, but Jawando said he believed it was a “pretextual stop” based on his race.
A parody Twitter account soon emerged, mocking him as “Officer Jawando.” A public Facebook group called “We the Citizens Support Montgomery County Police Officers” also was created to respond to the council member, who, a group administrator said, “has taken it upon himself to tarnish our county police.”
After a recent town hall on policing, some of the group’s 3,400 members blasted Jawando for saying that modern policing originated from slave patrols, calling him “disgusting” and a “race baiter.” Some of these comments have since been removed.
Jawando dismissed the group’s members as a minority within the liberal suburb of 1 million residents, most of whom, he said, agree that police disproportionately target black and Latino residents.
Where they differ is on how that injustice should be fixed.
“Simply saying ‘defunding, dismantling, eradicating’ — it’s not clear what that looks like,” said council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), who spearheaded a sweeping racial-equity bill last year.
In January, she co-sponsored a community policing bill that called for a police presence in marginalized communities through “positive, nonenforcement” initiatives. The left-leaning Silver Spring Justice Coalition opposed the legislation, arguing that an increased police presence would not make communities of color safer.
Jawando voted for the bill after proposing several amendments.
“That’s the million-dollar question, whether police make people feel safer or less safe,” said Luis Cardona, administrator of the county’s Street Outreach Network, which works to help de-escalate conflicts.
In the low-income, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods where the network’s 14 crisis intervention workers operate, residents are equally as likely to say they want fewer police as they are to say they want more, Cardona said. If officials asked residents whether they want more social workers or officers, he added, they would probably say both.
“They want their children to go out and play and have fun and to be protected,” Cardona said. “What that means — it’s complicated.”
Jawando said he understands those nuances, having grown up in Silver Spring, a diverse, densely populated part of the county.
At the age of 12, he lost an older friend to gun violence. As a law student, he was arrested with a group of friends when one of them yelled an obscene comment at an undercover police officer.
The arrest was expunged from Jawando’s record, and he kept the story secret. In 2015, a year after Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country and in the midst of an unsuccessful run for Congress, Jawando wrote about his experience for the Root.
“I expect that some who know me (and many others who don’t) will see me differently after reading this piece,” he wrote. “But I would ask them, when did I cease to be human?”
On a recent day, Instagram reminded Jawando that it had been a year since he posted about being stopped by the state trooper. He thought about the constituents, primarily young black men, who had approached him since then to share stories of being racially profiled and about his promises to do something. He thought about the slashes in school spending over the past decade and about looming budget cuts because of the pandemic.
“This happened a year ago this weekend and unfortunately is still happening,” he tweeted on June 13, adding “#DefundThePolice.”
Two days later, at the protest in Gaithersburg, Jawando said he is still identifying functions within the police department that could be reallocated. As a first step, he wants to eliminate the $3 million School Resource Officer Program, which places police in public schools. Two other council members support scaling back the program, but others want to review the issue before making a decision or keep the program entirely.
Jawando said he has spoken to his wife, Michele, about the pushback he expects to receive, some of which may be personal attacks. He is bracing, he said, but not afraid.
“Right now, people are in the streets,” Jawando said, gesturing to the protesters.
“If we don’t go big now, push as hard as we can now,” he continued, “we’re just going to end up back here again.”