Elrich on police: ‘There are things we absolutely have to change’

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said on Wednesday that “there are things we absolutely have to change” about policing, and that the change has to start from the top.

In a briefing with Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, Elrich expanded on a question about racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic to speak more broadly.

He said that, working with police Chief Marcus Jones, outside resources are being brought in “for reevaluating everything” about the Montgomery County police, from hiring to practices to discipline. He said the police will bring a contract for that to the Montgomery County Council for approval.

Elrich added that though high-profile instances of police misconduct lead people to “focus on the actions of individuals,” the real problem is that officers who are “over-policing” are following their training, as well as a structure that rewards officers “for how many tickets they write instead of how many community meetings they attend.”

“It seems like an officer problem,” Elrich said, “I can assure you it’s an institutional problem. They’re not told to be excessively violent; some people are going to get out of hand, and we’ll deal with that.” Other than that, however, “this starts top-down,” he said.

He gave an example of what he called a pretextual stop, with a hypothetical conversation between an officer and a driver: “’You don’t have a body in the car?’ ‘Of course I don’t have a body in the car.’ ‘Well then, you wouldn’t mind if I searched the trunk.’”

“That did not originate with the officers,” Elrich said, “that came from the top.”

Among other measures, he said, included a task force working on decriminalizing homelessness, which leads to people getting “caught in a vicious cycle.” When a homeless person commits a minor offense, Elrich said, they’re sent a summons. If they don’t have an address, they don’t get notice of a trial date, and then they get arrested for failure to appear.

“We ought to be able to put an end to that stuff,” Elrich said.

He also said black and brown communities in Montgomery County — and nationwide — could be helped with a new emphasis on homeownership.

Currently, efforts to expand housing opportunities focus on rentals, Elrich said, which struck him as “pretty paternalistic, because underlying that is a notion that poor people can’t manage their affairs.” An apartment building could just as easily be turned into a condominium complex that lets people own their homes, but “that’s not a decision that’s been made,” Elrich said.

He added that he looked forward to the current moment “being the opening” to discuss such issues, which he called “cause No. 1 underlying racism.”

“And here’s an opportunity to do something about it,” Elrich said.

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