This episode shows that the county, a liberal bastion that prides itself on diversity and compassion, is not immune to the police misconduct we have witnessed across the country in recent years.
What would it look like to reimagine public safety in Montgomery County? Last year, County Executive Marc Elrich established a 45-member Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to tackle that question. The task force, which we were honored to co-chair, was charged with assessing and reframing the county’s approach to public safety, along with confronting the drivers of racial bias in the justice system. We spent months examining data on criminal justice outcomes such as traffic stops and arrests, engaging with county staff and soliciting community input, which surfaced some disturbing testimony of residents’ experiences with law enforcement. In February, we submitted our report and its 87 recommendations to the county executive and the broader community.
Our report recognized that the county has many fine leaders and a range of services designed to promote opportunity and to respond to social and economic challenges. But we also found that overreliance on the justice system exacerbates the broad racial disparities at every level of the system.
As in many other counties, part of the problem stems from the burdens we have put on policing in recent decades. In response to widespread social problems, and limited safety-net resources, police have increasingly been called upon to provide services once reserved for other institutions, such as support for substance abuse and mental health challenges, along with homelessness and other outcomes of poverty.
Some of our recommendations focused on reducing the scope of the criminal justice system. For example, police officers in Montgomery County currently have the option to issue citations for certain low-level offenses rather than making an arrest. But this strategy could be substantially expanded by increasing the types of offenses covered by the policy.
New research from the National Bureau of Economic Research supports the strategy. In Suffolk County, Mass., (which contains Boston), District Attorney Rachael Rollins introduced a non-prosecution policy for some misdemeanors in 2019. The results were stark: Defendants who were not prosecuted for nonviolent misdemeanor charges (such as shoplifting, receiving stolen goods and drug possession with intent to distribute) were 56 percent less likely to be charged with a criminal offense within one year than similar individuals who were prosecuted before Rollins took office. Researchers speculated that these outcomes are explained in part by the fact that numerous court hearings required for even a misdemeanor charge might have interrupted defendants’ employment earnings — a negative financial shock can contribute to criminal activity. Also, acquiring a criminal record can diminish an individual’s prospects for obtaining employment, housing and certain public benefits.
Our task force also questioned the value of police officers in schools. We recommended eliminating the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Montgomery County’s SROs operate in all county high schools, and if available, in the county’s middle and elementary schools. There is little evidence from studies nationally that SRO programs produce better public safety outcomes in schools, while the number of student behavioral issues referred to the juvenile justice system generally rises, with disturbing impacts on Black and brown children. Eliminating SRO programs would free up funding that could be more effectively spent on social workers and violence-prevention counselors better trained to deal with the problems of adolescents.
In order to address the dramatic racial and ethnic disparities that plague our justice system, the county must collect and analyze data from all stages of the system and have easier access to records related to complaints against police. While some contend that racially biased policing is a consequence of “a few bad apples,” as opposed to structural racism, the only way we can enter this debate is to compile the relevant data and make it accessible to the community.
Our task force report has led to productive conversations with the county executive, County Council and various county stakeholders. In line with our recommendations, County Executive Elrich’s fiscal 2022 budget proposes eliminating the SRO program from all high schools, launching a homeless court to divert individuals from the criminal justice system, and enhancing staffing for the Mobile Crisis and Outreach Team to address problems of mental health and substance abuse.
These are promising steps, though there is a long way to go. Swift, systemic change is critical for the future of our county, especially in light of our county police’s handling of the 5-year-old boy.