Montgomery Co. council president calls for moves to slow police attrition

The attrition of police officers in Montgomery County, Maryland, has more than doubled during the pandemic, and the president of the County Council on Monday underlined the importance of retaining officers and attracting new ones.

Council President Gabe Albornoz said that while the Montgomery County Police Department lost an average of one to one and a half officers a month before the pandemic, that number currently stands at four. That projects out to a deficiency of 223 officers by 2025, Albornoz said. The department currently has about 1,300 officers.

Albornoz said “the ongoing challenges in recruitment and retention” were a national problem, but that “the county lags behind other neighboring jurisdictions, especially in initial salary and compensation.”

He also mentioned the bill that would provide a $2,500 housing tax credit for first responders.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but it’s important for us to continue to highlight that issue.”

About 65% of the county’s officers could retire right now with some benefits, Albornoz confirmed, and said that police reform measures need to include communication and buy-in from the police as well as the rest of the community.

“We as a country are reevaluating our criminal justice system,” Albornoz said, adding that it’s a priority “to ensure that our entire community feels safe, and that everyone is treated the same way by our police department.”

At the same time, with crime rates rising, “We also have to acknowledge the challenges before us,” Albornoz said.

The council president said, “It’s perfectly reasonable for this council and all political bodies across the country to evaluate where we are with regards to the police,” while keeping in mind that being a police officer “is a tough job on a good day.”

Through such measures as working with police on redeploying officers to areas of concern, as well as expanding behavioral health response as an alternative to law enforcement, “I believe we can achieve all those things,” Albornoz said. “ … It’s something we have to look at holistically.”

Police leaders speak

Police leaders spoke to the council’s Public Safety Committee earlier Monday, and Assistant Chief Darren Franke told the committee that the department has 1.28 officers per capita, including its municipal partners, compared with Prince George’s County, which is at 1.9.

“Chief Jones and I read an exit interview from an eight-year officer just last week, and they’ve left the policing profession altogether,” Franke said.

The county is in discussions with the Fraternal Order of Police over the collective bargaining agreement to come to an understanding on salary, which stands at $54,620 per year for a new officer, according to the police department.

Unlike some jurisdictions, Montgomery County requires its officers to have college or military experience, which is something Jones is not willing to change to improve recruitment. However, Franke said, the county could consider student loan forgiveness to sweeten the benefits for new officers.

Police Chief Marcus Jones said the department has made changes, including breaking up its central unit to different districts to best use the resources it has.

“We work very hard to make sure that we’re finding a way to maintain the service that we’ve always provided to this community in the best way we can, without any cuts, in any regards to these things, because I think the community has an expectation,” he told lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the 911 call center is also having staffing issues, according to Franke, who said it has not affected emergency response yet.

Ghost guns

The prevalence of ghost guns — unregistered guns bought in pieces online and assembled at home — was brought into sharp relief earlier this month, as such a weapon was used in the shooting at Magruder High School, the first in-school shooting in Montgomery County.

At the press briefing, Albornoz said a crackdown on such weapons is long overdue, and needs to happen on the state and federal levels as well as the local level.

A bill in Annapolis would crack down on the loophole that allows such guns to escape regulations, which Albornoz called a necessary step — especially since a local bill, which restricts distributing such guns to minors and bans them within 100 feet of a public assembly, is being challenged in court.

The wide popularity of such ghost guns will make all other steps to reduce gun violence “moot,” Albornoz said, echoing the sentiments of County State’s Attorney John McCarthy. “These guns are that accessible and that prevalent in our community,” the council president said.

Threats to health officers, houses of worship

Council Vice President Evan Glass confirmed that members of County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration told him a few people had turned down the job of health officer because of the “tone and tenor” surrounding health, with an increase in threats against health officers by those who oppose measures to restrict the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m an elected official,” Glass said. “I see my Twitter feeds; I see what’s written on Facebook, and I’m in the arena. I can handle that. But when some of that spills over to our appointed individuals, we have to be cautious, and clearly it is having an effect on our ability to lure the best and brightest to keep our residents safe.”

Glass also emphasized the importance of the county’s $700,000 grant program for security for houses of worship in the wake of an increase in hate crimes in the county. Last week, 61 institutions were awarded such grants, and Albornoz said Elrich had told him the money would be included again in the next fiscal year’s budget.

Glass pointed out that the recent hostage standoff in a Texas synagogue happened after the worshippers brought a man into their place of worship, thinking he was homeless. “It is a false choice to think we have to either have safety when we congregate and pray, or help those who are less fortunate.”

Climate change

Council member Tom Hucker detailed a bill that he and Albornoz will introduce Tuesday that will require a climate impact statement be attached to any bill or measure presented to the council.

The council set a goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2027, and “we’re behind,” Hucker said. “We really have to take swift action. … We’ve seen the impact of climate every single week in more severe storms all around the world.”

Hucker said the council already assesses the impact of any bill on racial equity, and “it makes perfect sense that we should have the same level of assessment.”

COVID-19 numbers

Public Health Emergency Preparedness Manager Sean O’Donnell said at the briefing that the county’s COVID-19 numbers continue to decline.

The case rate over the past seven days is down to 313 cases per 100,000 residents, while the test positivity rate is down to 6.61%. The number of people in acute care is down to 160, while those in intensive care are down to 50, O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell added that hundreds of thousands of masks and nearly a million test kits had been given out through county schools and libraries; he also repeated his observation from last week that while the overall vaccination numbers in the county were good, the number of people eligible for a booster shot who haven’t gotten it was still high — around 50%.

O’Donnell said the vaccination rates were the reason the county has done better than neighboring ones in the pandemic, and there are “still a lot of individuals who are eligible who still need to get boosters.”

The expiration date on the county’s indoor mask mandate is Feb. 21, and Albornoz said that as long as the numbers continue to go in the right direction, he wouldn’t imagine extending it: “I think that Feb. 21 deadline is looking good.”

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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