Montgomery County police highlight restraint, body cams as critical strategy

WASHINGTON — Montgomery County Police are looking at new ways to hold their own officers accountable when a police shooting happens.

In a hearing before the Montgomery County Council, Police Chief Thomas Manger told the council members that his department, like the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, is looking at having agencies from outside the county investigate shootings involving police. Prosecutors in Montgomery and Howard counties recently announced an agreement in which they will swap cases of police shootings to increase transparency and avoid the appearance of favoritism or bias.

“We’re in discussions right now as well about how we’re going to handle our next police-involved shooting, our next in-custody death,” Manger told the council.

Manger said he couldn’t be specific. “I’m intentionally being vague about this because it involves other jurisdictions, other people,” and the discussions are ongoing.

Manger said his department is clear on the need for increased transparency. He also announced to the council that the body camera pilot project has already begun. In all, 100 police officers and executive staff will be outfitted with body cameras. Manger says 20 executive staff members have already volunteered

“I’m one of the 20,” he added.

Manger said in an age when everyone has a cellphone with a camera, his police have had to get used to being observed — and recorded.

“When the handcuffs come out, you see three or four people with their cameras up and you know, my cops — they take it in stride,” Manger said.

During the hearing, Manger’s department got praise from council members for being forward-thinking and for the recent indictments in a federal case that targeted the Bel Pre area of Silver Spring. Council member Nancy Navarro called it an “extraordinary operation” that made the Bel Pre corridor safer. But there were also some criticisms that came up, one being a lack of diversity on the police force.

Council member Craig Rice told Manger when it comes to recruitment, “It’s not just enough to say well, we’re trying,” because, “If there’s not a diversification in the workforce, then it certainly leads to a continued disconnection when it comes to our communities.”

Manger responded, “Well, you’re right, if I were just saying ‘I’m trying’ and I wasn’t making any progress, that’s one thing, but I’m saying ‘we’re trying and we are making progress.’”

Police say one of the issues they still face in recruiting minority candidates is the pay. In Montgomery County, the police department requires applicants to have a college education. Assistant Chief of Police Betsy Davis, who used to head the personnel department, says many college educated minority candidates would opt for higher paying private sector jobs.

She told Rice, “I need your help … my message to every Latino kid or every African American kid especially if they can speak a second language is: ‘You can write your ticket to any type of job.’”

Manger told Rice and the council that training is also a vital tool for fostering better community relations and avoiding bias in policing. Looking at the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the Cleveland boy who was shot to death by police who believed he had a gun, Manger asked, “Was it necessary? Could it have been avoided?”

Manger talked about the need for police to give themselves time and space before racing into a situation and talked about, “Not creating that moment where something has to happen.”

Davis said the training in de-escalation that takes place in the Montgomery County Police Department was invaluable as she led a team of officers into patrolling in Baltimore City during the recent riots.

“You know, you’re getting rocks, you’re getting pelted.” She said her officers used “great restraint” and that, she insists, gave her police the confidence to handle the situation without escalating the violence.

Davis said her officers, including her African American officers “were getting called every name in the book” by angry protesters, but she added officers are trained to remember that protesting is a constitutional right and people will vent in ways that aren’t polite.

“We’re trained to take it, we’re trained to listen to it,” she said.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. 

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