Acting Montgomery County police chief Marcus Jones said language used by several county officers during a May encounter with four black men outside a McDonald’s violated departmental policy and was “decidedly unprofessional,” but he maintained Friday that the actions sparking the incident that went viral were rooted in good, proactive policing motivated by a veteran sergeant’s suspicions.
“We have a community where crime is well below the national level,” Jones said. “And part of that is because we have officers who are proactive, who go out [and] who know their neighborhoods.”
The May 9 incident in a parking lot in White Oak attracted attention after a civilian cellphone recording of part of the event showed a white female officer using the n-word during an exchange with the men. That officer, Danielle Olsen, could be heard insulting one of the men’s diction and suggesting he wasn’t speaking English. Another officer in the cellphone video asked a man to quit acting like a little girl.
Beyond the words and the tone in the exchange, residents and politicians began questioning why the police approached the men in the first place. County Council members have demanded data on the race and age of people stopped for trespassing, and questioned the police department’s broad used of signed “agent agreements” with businesses that allow officers to enforce trespassing laws as the officers see fit.
“The reporting and social media postings at the time reflected the view that we unfairly, and perhaps illegally, accosted and searched young men who had been customers of the restaurant and were waiting to be picked up to be taken to work,” Jones said Friday as the department released 205 minutes of the officers’ body-worn camera recordings of the encounter. “The evidence from our investigation presents a different view.”
The Friday videos followed two previous shorter releases.
The police released two videos on the night of May 9, after seeing the citizen’s social media post regarding the encounter. The first video, which lasted nearly six minutes, was taken by one of the four men. The second video, which lasted 12 minutes 38 seconds, was a portion of the footage from Olsen’s body camera, including her use of the epithet. She spoke the word in reaction to one of the men using it.
Officials and citizens demanded the department release video from all officers on the scene, which it did on Friday.
Jones said all nine officers who were present at the stop are the subjects of internal investigations, but said that not all nine necessarily violated department policy.
Olsen, the officer who used the n-word, has been reassigned to desk duty, police said. The other eight are on normal road work, some in different parts of the county, Jones said.
Jones said the incident, from the department’s point of view, began when Sgt. Michael McDannell was standing in line at the McDonald’s on New Hampshire Avenue the morning of May 9.
McDannell noticed the four men just outside the building and recognized one as a person who had been arrested before on charges of possessing and selling marijuana, Jones said.
“He decided he wanted to move these guys along,” Jones added.
The sergeant walked outside and made his request.
“One of the subjects decided that, ‘No, I don’t want to move along,’ and had some foul language to share back with Sergeant McDannell,” Jones said. “So that sort of starts the initiation.”
None of McDannell’s initial encounters with the men was captured on body-cam video because the sergeant did not turn on his camera at the start of the interaction as required by department policy, Jones said. The sergeant instead turned on the camera after the stop was underway, Jones said.
McDannell moved closer to them, smelled marijuana, had probable cause to arrest and detain them — and did, according to Jones. From there, as more officers arrived, they began asking to see identification while searching pockets and bags.
As captured on his body-cam recording, McDannell said it was the men’s conduct that prompted him to take things up a notch.
“You know what?” McDannell said, speaking to another officer and one suspect, “I was going to walk away after I checked everybody out. But everybody had to run their mouths then. You run your mouth, I’m going to win that game every time.”
“You were good,” the sergeant said to one of the men. “And I appreciate it.”
Because of the lag in the start of the video from the sergeant’s camera, “it’s problematic that we don’t have any other evidence and have to take the officer’s word over why the encounter began,” said County Council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), whose concerns over racial profiling have prompted him to lead efforts questioning police on why they stop people and how they use trespass agreements with businesses.
In May, he asked the police department to provide demographic data for all trespassing citations issued and “stop and frisk” encounters made over the last two years. This week, according to Jawando, he was told police records don’t allow for such data extractions. “That’s troubling,” Jawando said Friday. “To develop good practices, you need good data.”
Jawando said some of the trespass agreements make sense — allowing police to remove troubling visitors from an apartment unit hallway, for example, at night when a property manager might not be present. But he said the officers may have too much leeway, and said that in public spaces like a McDonald’s, it might be appropriate for officers to check with employees before taking specific actions.
Jones said McDannell’s reasons for initiating police contact were appropriate on two levels.
The department had a signed trespassing agent agreement with that McDonald’s, Jones said, and because of it, McDannell had authority to warn the men they needed to move.
And in the broader context of proactive policing, the sergeant knew his beat, Jones said, and knew that pot dealers had sold in that spot.
The McDonald’s in question generates frequent calls for police service. In 2018, there were 192 calls for service, including 57 that dealt with trespassing, Jones said.
The acting chief added that the manager “not only encourages his employees to call the police when there are issues; he also requested that we take action when officers view a situation that might be disruptive to the business or which we believe might be of a criminal nature.”
Jones said security footage revealed that the men had gone into the McDonald’s restaurant that morning but didn’t buy anything. They were outside the restaurant for about an hour, Jones said, before McDannell noticed them.
The four men involved were issued trespass notices, and two were given civil citations for a small quantity of marijuana possession. Jones said the store manager asked that the trespass notices given to the four men not be rescinded.
A McDonald’s official declined to comment on the incident.
The acting chief’s strong words about proactive policing were similar to statements earlier in the week by Montgomery’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney John McCarthy, and signaled the county law enforcement community’s concerns over the increased criticism of its policing methods.
Jones said proactive policing protects citizens living where drug-related violence and drive-by shootings are real threats.
Jones said, “These officers are standing in the front line, making sure the people who live in those communities, who don’t have a microphone put in front of their faces and don’t have a voice — we are their voice. We are the voice for those citizens who need us the most. And we wont stop doing that today. And we won’t stop doing it tomorrow . . . I can promise you, Montgomery County will do that forever, okay?”
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.