By late September, Montgomery County’s top elected official, Marc Elrich, had painted himself into a political corner.

He’d spent eight months trying to name a police chief, the ­highest-profile position in his new administration, for a post that was open for the first time in more than a decade. Elrich’s three favored outsiders had each bailed on him.

As the search sputtered, Elrich (D) continued to say publicly that he didn’t want an internal candidate because of his long-held view that officers were overly aggressive in stops and searches.

That stance left the leading in-house contender, acting chief Marcus Jones, doing the job even as Elrich said he didn’t want him permanently and repudiated many efforts of the department Jones had served for 34 years.

Yet on a fall afternoon, Jones was sitting across from Elrich, at the county executive’s invitation.

If Elrich had decided to restart the search, it probably would have meant three more months without a permanent leader.

If Jones had decided to focus on what he later called the “tumultuous process” and some of its bad days, he wouldn’t have had a chance to reiterate his plans for expanded community policing and ongoing support for officers to do enforcement.

At a diner, the two were coming to an agreement.

On Tuesday, Jones’s name will be put before the Montgomery County Council, where he is expected to be confirmed to head the 1,300 sworn officers in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, with 1.1 million residents. But how they will move past their stormy courtship to collaborate remains the big unknown.

Jones “has got to know he has the support of the county executive,” said Timothy Firestine, who for 12 years was the top aide for Elrich’s predecessor as county executive, Isiah Leggett.

“And I think that’s going to be a challenge, given what the county executive said publicly during the search process,” Firestine said. “It’s an unfortunate start for such an important position.”

An assessment

Elrich, 70, is a progressive stalwart who was elected with a strong majority last year after he narrowly defeated a business-friendly Democrat in the primary. He recently drew the ire of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for forbidding the county police to display a donated “thin blue line” flag, which critics say has been used to denigrate the Black Lives Matter movement against police-involved shootings.

When Elrich took office and assessed the police department, he concluded that officers were too intrusive, especially in minority neighborhoods: “It’s kind of an old-school approach and it’s alienating the hell out of the communities.”

Where Elrich, who is white, saw too many stops, Jones, 55, who is African American, saw unbiased policing that created a safer county. “We have officers who are proactive,” he would say.

That was where the two stood earlier in the year as the hunt for a new chief launched after the retirement of J. Thomas Manger after 15 years as the county’s top cop.

Elrich promised a diligent, nationwide search in an early show of how he would make big decisions.

Montgomery and Baltimore counties each began the year looking for police chiefs. Despite similarities — big counties outside major cities — their job postings couldn’t have been more different.

Baltimore County’s, posted in December, got right to the point: “An opportunity to accelerate crime reduction and reform efforts in one of the nation’s largest police departments.”

Montgomery’s from three months later meandered, taking prospective chiefs through five of Elrich’s “priority outcomes for the county’s future,” including reducing greenhouse emissions and easier commutes.

The term “crime” finally arrived in the sixth point for safe neighborhoods. And then crime was raised in the context of livability issues such as the creation of neighborhood gathering ­places.

“I thought the job announcement was very strange,” said Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), a frequent ally of Elrich who also has called for police reforms. “I was surprised that it didn’t emphasize management of a large department laser-focused on crime prevention, crime control and investigation as the primary responsibility.”

Less than two dozen résumés came in, a relatively low total compared with police chief searches in smaller Maryland communities. Last year, the city of Rockville attracted 90 candidates. And the Montgomery opening was for a job where the outgoing chief had earned $240,000 — more than the $195,000 of the then-county executive.

Perceiving tension

Elrich did not start out averse to inside contenders, he said recently in an interview.

The force had long enjoyed a national reputation as a well-run operation, he knew. But as he settled in as county executive, Elrich said he kept hearing from residents and activists about people feeling harassed. In his mind that diminished public safety.

“We have pretty good surface relations here,” he said. “But I think underneath the surface there’s a lot of tension.”

Two incidents, he said, weighed heavily on him.

The first was an officer-involved fatal shooting in 2018 in Silver Spring.

To Elrich, the shooting appeared legally justified — a conclusion prosecutors also reached. The victim had charged and wrestled the officer to the ground, leaving him in fear, his attorney said, of being killed with his own gun.

But Elrich thought that the initial police stop on a residential street never should have taken place and that the officer was slow at the start to activate his body-worn camera.

A department report sent to Elrich on the incident did not address the camera issue but found that the stop was justified because the officer had seen the man making movements that looked liked he might have been jamming a weapon into his pocket.

The other incident, Elrich said, was an encounter in May recorded on cellphones and police body cameras between officers and four African American men outside a McDonald’s in White Oak. A white officer was recorded on video using the n-word in an exchange with the black men.

Elrich questioned why the four men were approached and detained in the first place. They had told officers they were waiting for rides to work. Two received civil citations for holding small amounts of marijuana. All four got trespass warnings to stay away from the restaurant.

As the county executive knew, both incidents resonated at the County Council — which has to confirm any nominee — with the council passing legislation calling for the release of more information in police-involved shootings and the creation of a police advisory commission.

As part of the search, Elrich’s office organized a Community Forum on Policing billed as a chance for “county residents to share their experiences and concerns about current policies and actions,” and Elrich told the audience upfront that he planned to have his candidates watch a video of the event.

About 50 people spoke, many saying they thought officers made race-based stops and citing the 2018 shooting or the McDonald’s encounter. “I think there’s an enormous amount of validity to what people have said,” Elrich told them in closing remarks. “I cannot think of a more important appointee that I have.”

The shortlist

By June, a seven-member panel set up by Elrich’s office had winnowed the pool.

Included on the panel: two of Elrich’s staff members; the local NAACP president, who was on Elrich’s transition team; and the head of CASA, an immigrant rights group. CASA's political  arm, CASA in Action, had endorsed Elrich.

The shortlist was Jones, Takoma Park Police Chief Antonio DeVaul; former Portsmouth, Va., police chief Tonya Chapman and another outsider whose name never emerged publicly. Chapman was ranked highest, according to the NAACP president, Linda Plummer.

Elrich and his staff interviewed all four.

Jones had risen through the ranks with command posts in Silver Spring, the narcotics bureau and the major-crimes bureau.

As acting chief, he was in close communication with Elrich and they had discussed the McDonald’s encounter.

Jones presented data showing how often officers had responded to reports of drug dealing and other illegal activity near the restaurant and said the incident arose as an experienced beat sergeant appropriately following his suspicions. But Elrich found the data unpersuasive and recalls telling Jones: “What you probably need is a relationship with those kids and other kids so that they talk to you and they’re helpful.”

Elrich said he also had hoped to hear Jones more rigorously question the department’s report on the 2018 shooting. “If he had [said], ‘I’m going to revaluate this report, and I’m going to reopen it. I don’t think it’s accurate,’ ” Elrich said, “that would have been helpful.”

By early July, Elrich decided to pass Jones over, settling on Chapman and DeVaul as his top ­choices.

Days later, Jones spoke at an unrelated news conference about his department’s review of the McDonald’s incident. Jones made clear that the officer’s language was unacceptable, and that it was the subject of retraining classes and an internal affairs investigation.

But he made another point, jabbing the air as he spoke. “These officers are standing in the front line, making sure the people that 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,” Jones said. “We are the voice for those citizens who need us the most. And we won’t stop doing that today. And we won’t stop doing it tomorrow, whatever time that ends for anybody’s career. I can promise you, Montgomery County will do that forever, okay?”

At his home in Potomac, county resident Vernon Ricks was incensed that Jones had been snubbed. A retired Xerox executive and longtime African American leader in the county, Ricks had met Jones more than 20 years ago when both were on a mentoring task force. He thought Jones’s commitment to trying to keep young adults out of trouble was being discounted.

He called Jones.

“Don’t get into the fray,” he remembers telling Jones. “You can never tell. It might come back to you.”

Jones had solid support from at least five of the nine County Council members, who started taking an aggressive posture toward Elrich’s picks.

DeVaul’s department, Takoma Park, was too small. On Chapman, council members pushed Elrich to explain why she had been forced to resign as chief in Portsmouth. They sent him 41 questions, 11 to pose to Chapman.

“They picked a candidate for whom they didn’t have basic information, didn’t have basic answers,” recalled council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).

Jones’s council supporters began to signal their preference.

“Our force is working,” council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) said over the summer. “I trust and value our leadership.”

Rice spoke passionately about being racially profiled as an African American motorist by a Montgomery police officer but emphasized that it had happened three decades earlier. And he said “community policing” must go beyond speaking with people — citing what he called a troubled neighborhood in his district, Germantown Park.

“They are begging for our police to come in and lock people up,” Rice said.

Out of the running

By late August, Chapman took herself out of the running. When Elrich announced it at a news conference, he also was asked whether Jones would be returned to consideration.

“I mean, to be honest, no,” Elrich said.

Instead, Elrich tried again — approaching sort-of-outsider Darryl McSwain, who after 30 years on the county force had retired a year earlier and was heading a force that patrolled the county’s parks.

The pension package tied with his retirement might be an obstacle to returning, but Elrich said he could get McSwain confirmed, even if that meant broader changes to pension rules.

The council balked — even before McSwain was presented to them — and he, too, bowed out, saying he appreciated the overtures but noting the financial hurdles.

To Elrich, the council again was being overly resistant to an outsider, despite its own actions calling for more department oversight.

'We'll face those realities'

Elrich was at a crossroads.

He could restart a search and ignore the council's growing impatience, or he could have his staff call Jones. The call went out to Jones.

“I’ve never lost interest in this job,” Jones recalled telling an Elrich staff member.

Two days later, at Nick’s Diner in Wheaton, Jones and Elrich went over subjects they’d discussed and debated for months. Jones promised more community policing, a strategy designed to build friendships and trust among residents. He spoke about an audit of police stops that he planned.

“We’ll face those realities, whatever they are,” Jones recalled telling Elrich.

And the two discussed how officers had used the odor of marijuana as a reason to search cars and people, a tactic maintained even as criminal sanctions dropped against small amounts of the substance. A new ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals over marijuana stops would probably limit the searches. “This is going to change anyway,” Elrich recalled Jones saying.

Within an hour, they had a deal.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the entity that endorsed Marc Elrich for Montgomery County Executive in 2018. It was CASA's political arm, CASA in Action, not CASA. This article has been updated.