Executive candidates in Montgomery Co. debate rise in crime, police in schools

Four Democratic candidates for Montgomery County, Maryland, executive squared off in a debate Sunday hitting on big issues facing the county — notably police in schools and an increase in crime. 

The latter was the first issue that the candidates discussed during the debate hosted by Bethesda Magazine.

Montgomery County recorded 35 homicides in 2021 — the highest in decades.

And the incumbent, County Executive Marc Elrich, said the county’s crime wave is part of a national trend.

”I think most people agree that has a lot to do with rising mental health issues, and a population that’s undergone stresses that are unparalleled over the last couple of years,” he said.

He mentioned the need to increase mental health care clinics in the county. 

“When I was a kid, there used to be clinics that were run by the county — mental health clinics in the county — and those clinics were taken away decades ago, and we have not replaced them.”

Businessman David Blair pushed back on Elrich’s comments. 

“So I lose all energy when I hear that these are national problems. The number of police officers that we cut from the budget last year really has you scratching your head and how that relates specifically to what we see going on here in Montgomery County,” Blair said.

Council member Tom Hucker said that the county’s police department has been “hollowed out at the patrol level,” and that has affected crime in the county, especially the Silver Spring area. 

“I represent Silver Spring,” said Hucker, “and it’s horrible what has happened with public safety and Silver Spring. Our patrol unit of our third district has been really hollowed out. They have more vacancies than I can remember.”

The county, he said, needs to increase pay for officers. 

“Even the city of Rockville pays its police force more than we pay our officers, which is crazy,” Hucker said. “We need to recruit the best and the culturally competent officers, and we need to pay them commensurate with our high housing prices in our competitive jurisdictions.”  

Hucker also suggested the county should run a gun-buy-back program.

Council member Hans Riemer said when he recently took his son out for ice cream in Silver Spring, it was the first time he felt unsafe in the city. 

“That is unacceptable,” said Riemer. 

“We have to focus on the right kind of priority in our police work focusing on violent crime, on clearing crimes. And we also have to make sure that as we invest in public safety, we don’t want to go back to the way things were,” Riemer continued.

“Many people don’t feel safe in our community, not only from crime, but also from their interactions with police.” 

If elected, Riemer said, he would prioritize the root causes of crime and crime prevention, rather than reactive policing. 

Candidates also reacted to Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight’s plan to partially reintroduce police officers in schools after an increase in violence and a shooting at Magruder High School in January. 

“I do support the decisions she made,” said the current county executive. “I want to emphasize — part of that decision is that the officers will continue to not do anything but enforce criminal law. They are not going to be disciplinarians in the school. They’re not going to patrol the halls. They’re not going to enforce school discipline. They’re there for criminal events.”

Elrich also stressed the importance of developing more mental health programs in schools. 

Riemer and Hucker agreed that mental health professionals were needed in schools rather than officers. 

“Trained counselors will be more effective in that role, and trained security staff in the school can adequately find out what is happening and whether police need to be called,” said Riemer. “… I would rather hire … violence prevention staff and every high school than one police officer. I think we get a lot more out of it.”

A broader approach, Hucker said, needs to be taken to ensure school safety. 

“We’ve lost 10 of our students, since January, to overdoses and suicides. We can’t wait,” he said. ”… We need social workers and behavioral health workers in the schools to take care of our students. That’s the whole time. And that’s why we don’t have them.”

He blamed budgetary fights over the last few years between the County Council and executive for not having appropriate staff in place at schools. 

Blair was in favor of reintroducing school resource officers into schools. 

“Every student deserves to feel both respected and safe. And I believe that we can have that with a school resource officer. The intent of the program clearly was violence protection,” said Blair.

“I believe that there was an opportunity to fix it, to address it, to make it work for everybody,” he said.

The Democratic primary for the four candidates is June 28, and the general election will be Nov. 8. No Republican has filed to run at this time. 

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Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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