Montgomery County executive offers plan to ‘re-imagine public safety’

Montgomery County, Maryland, wants a closer, independent look at policing and the role of police officers in the community.

On Thursday, County Executive Marc Elrich shared his “Reimagine Public Safety” plan, which will create a task force to do an independent review of the county’s current policies and police training and recruitment.

Elrich said he believes there is underlying racial bias in the community.

“I know nobody who’s white, in their early 20s, walking down the streets, stopped and asked where they’re going,” Elrich said. “I’ve had multiple Black friends in that same age group, young professionals, walking down the street and being asked where they’re going.”

More examples came to light when Elrich said a resident went through the reports for 95,000 traffic stops in Montgomery County and saw disproportionate numbers: Over 50% of those stopped were Black, nearly 30% Latino and the remaining were white and Asian.

“He followed that process all the way through,” Elrich said. “Who gets a ticket, and who doesn’t get a ticket? Also disproportionate. It goes to court, and he followed the court stuff. Who got sentenced and how people got sentenced? Disproportionate.”

Elrich wants a top-to-bottom review of the Montgomery County police, including the hiring process, how officers are recruited, training, promotions and even how officers are evaluated.

In Prince George’s County, the chief of police resigned last week, following a 94-page report by the American Civil Liberties Union that detailed racial bias and discrimination toward officers of color.

“I have looked at this enough to know this isn’t just an issue of bad apples, but an issue of how they are trained,” Elrich said.

Montgomery County police Chief Marcus Jones is supportive of the idea.

Jones said that he had talked to Elrich about doing an external audit of the department while he was still in talks for the permanent chief of police position.

“I always believe it is important for us to be talking about the realities of what’s going on within our police department, for transparency to occur and for folks to know exactly how things are functioning and really looking more into not only just the data, but also looking into the system itself and how we are also having some impact in some parts of our community, whether that’s positive or negative,” he said.

A shift to social services

Another part of Elrich’s vision is rerouting many calls the police departments are asked to deal with by different agencies.

“Homeless, mental health, alcohol problems — a whole bunch of things that ought to be handled by social service agencies,” Elrich said. “And also more full treatment and support for people rather than incident-by-incident.”

Health and Human Services Director Dr. Raymond Crowel confirmed that there is a desperate need for appropriate care for those with mental illness and additions. Currently, many of those who need help are having the police called on them.

“As a result, our prisons and jails, even here in Montgomery County, have become often the default hospital, where you can get help if you are arrested and incarcerated for a period of time,” Crowel said.

According to Crowel, some 20 to 30% of people sent to county corrections facilities have some mental health or substance use disorders.

But, over time, law enforcement officers have been asked to take on more and more of the role of social worker, therapist or case manager in responding to calls from people who are in mental distress, Crowel said.

In some cases, a person in mental distress gets into an altercation with police, and it can have negative results, as police are not trained to be social workers for those in mental crisis.

Montgomery Police recently announced a new use-of-force policy amid growing calls to hold police officers more accountable, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

He believes there is a multi-leveled solution, which includes a mobile crisis capacity that will allow human services people to arrive before police or arrive with police as needed.

Crowel also said there should be alternatives for those whose behavioral or substance use problems would be better suited to an option other than being arrested, and they should have access to the services and treatment they need as well.

Torrie Cooke, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police for Montgomery County, is hopeful this will create a step forward and move things back to the community policing they used to do when he started as an officer.

“There should be clear direction. And certainly there was clear direction back in the early ’90s, when I first started with community policing, and we need to get back to that clear direction and get back to providing services for police officers so they don’t have to encounter certain situations, which have been pushed on them by the inability to fund certain social services by government,” Cooke said.

Jones is also in support of increased social services, saying he will be glad to see officers able to give those cases to professionals in the field of mental health and other fields.

“Policing has been, for the longest time, pushed to address these issues based upon failures of federal, state and local leaders along the way as it relates to mental health,” Jones said. “And the police departments have been really provided with no choice but to deal with these issues.”

He also believes the officers not responding to those cases could be allocated to other service calls that would benefit the community.

But that conflicts with Elrich’s plan for those extra officers and their pay.

Funding will be hefty for the social services he thinks are necessary, and Elrich said some of the money to pay for them may come from the police department.

“How much is tied up on police doing things that should be done by other people? And hoping that provides us with opportunities to shift funding from the department to agencies that should be carrying out this work,” Elrich said.

And if more money is required, he said the county may need to make increased investments to pay for the necessary services.

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