THE IDEA that police are no good at conducting high-stakes investigations of themselves prompted Montgomery County lawmakers to enact a measure requiring that outsiders — meaning law enforcement officers from elsewhere — be enlisted to look into the county’s own police-involved deaths and report the findings publicly. Nice idea. In practice, no outsiders want the job so far.
Prompted by the legislation, sponsored by council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), Montgomery officials have been scouring area localities in search of a police department willing to enter into a reciprocal arrangement to investigate each other’s cases when a police officer causes a civilian’s death. So far, they’ve found no takers, possibly because other nearby departments are smaller and are busy with their own matters.
That raises a larger question: What are best practices to ensure that police-involved deaths are subject to honest, transparent investigations fully accountable to the publics they serve?
Nationally, a number of state police departments or other state-level investigative agencies have units empowered to investigate police-involved deaths in localities. Maryland has no such provision. It should. Moreover, the Maryland legislature, in thrall to police unions, has barred civilians from access to police personnel records, meaning they can take no part in reviewing police-involved deaths when they occur.
In Montgomery, lawmakers on the all-Democratic County Council have limited options. They may not be able to change the status quo under which police investigate their own when police-involved deaths occur. However, they can inject some sensible civilian oversight of law enforcement, even if it is not in the investigative process. (A reciprocal arrangement under which state prosecutors in Montgomery and Howard counties have agreed to review police-involved deaths in each other’s jurisdiction does not apply to initial police investigations.)
A bill being drafted by council al-large member Hans Riemer would establish a civilian board that would oversee and make recommendations on police policy and procedures. It is unpopular with police and getting a skeptical reception from some council members who question why such a board would be foisted on law enforcement but not on other county agencies and departments.
There’s a simple and compelling answer to that: because other agencies and departments are not empowered and equipped to kill civilians. And while Montgomery’s police department is highly professional and well regarded, it has had instances of police-involved deaths — including one last year — and likely will have them again. It is foolish to believe that the county’s police force, with 1,200 sworn officers, is immune to mishaps, misjudgments and even malicious conduct, some of which may result in unwarranted deaths.
With more than 1 million residents, Montgomery is Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction. It is a bellwether and a leader whose example could prompt other localities to fashion more meaningful civilian oversight of law enforcement. It can move proactively now, or be forced to act later, under pressure and amid controversy, when an unwarranted death occurs at the hands of police. The former is the smarter way to go.