2015 | Politics

After Incident, Leggett Reflects on Police-Minority Relations

County executive says Park Police "clearly overstepped their bounds" when they pulled him over on election eve

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Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett

Courtesy Montgomery County

On Nov. 3, the evening prior to his re-election to a third term as Montgomery County’s first African-American executive, Ike Leggett was hassled by a Park Police officer near a polling place in Silver Spring. The incident occurred just months after the deaths of two African-American men at the hands of white police officers in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., had ignited a nationwide debate over police-minority group relations.

Last week, in an hour-long interview, Leggett recounted his recent experience with the police, and discussed his views on the state of police-community relations locally. He also discussed his perspective, as a former law professor, on the handling of the New York City and Ferguson situations.

Bethesda Beat: What prompted you to decide to publicly discuss what happened to you the night before the election?

Leggett: I [recently] spoke to a group of young people at a rally, reacting to the challenges of police around the country. What I indicated was that we were, in Montgomery County, in a very exceptional place where we had police management and rank-and-file who are outstanding men and women. But I wanted to convey to young people that, even in Montgomery County, although we are much, much better than many other places, there are always challenges that we face.  We’ve made progress, but we have not reached the level that I think we should.

And I gave two examples of something that had happened to me. So I was explaining to young people how you need to be mindful, and how you need to conduct yourself in an appropriate manner with police.

Bethesda Beat: The first episode you described took place in the late 1990s when you were on the County Council?

Leggett:  I had a rental property in Silver Spring, where my tenant had failed to pay rent for a couple of months. He said ‘Well, come by tonight. I’ll be home and you can pick up the rent.’ I go by there about 9 o’clock, and the light’s off. I walked up to the door, rang the doorbell, and nobody was there. So I decided I’d leave and come back. As I was coming back around the block, a [Montgomery County] police officer pulled up behind me, turned on the siren, and walked up. He sees me and obviously recognizes me as being on the County Council. He says ‘Oh, Mr. Leggett, I just stopped you to say hello to you.’

 If you believe that, I got a bridge somewhere to sell to you (chuckling).

Bethesda Beat: Then there was the incident this past November.

Leggett: On Election Eve night, I have this ritual where I go by and put my signs at 20 polling places. I’ve been doing this ever since I ran for office. The last place I stopped was the Good Hope Recreation Center [in Silver Spring]. I had a baseball cap, jeans and a sweater on. Just as I drove off Good Hope Road right at the edge of the parking lot, this spotlight hits me and I look back and notice it was a police car. My assumption was that maybe there’s some infraction out on the road.

Just as I’m getting out, the police officer – who turns out to be Park Police, a big guy – starts yelling and screaming and cursing about why am I there and that I had no right to be there…in such a harsh, negative unprofessional tone that I was literally stunned for a minute or two, just listening to what he was saying.  

Bethesda Beat: Do you recall any racial slurs being used by the officer?

Leggett: I don’t recall any racial slurs, but there was some very negative four-letter words used in the process…Then another police officer, a female officer, started walking toward us. I think as she got closer to me, she recognized who I was. So she immediately starts to apologize, and says that this guy was new, he didn’t know who I was, and besides – as though it should have mattered – this guy was from Howard County.

Had I been a young teenager, grabbed something out of my pocket and decided to run, or gotten fearful and did something that was in some way misinterpreted, who knows what might have happened?…And if it had been a young person who sees and experiences that kind of conduct, they leave with a negative image of the police that may stigmatize that person’s view for a lifetime.

The police clearly overstepped their bounds. There wasn’t a question in my mind…about whether or not they should have even stopped me—because I was right at the road at the beginning, hadn’t been there five seconds, and there was no observation saying ‘This guy looks suspicious.’

Bethesda Beat: Could you describe your reactions as you drove home immediately afterward?   

Leggett: When you come out of the South as I did, out of the civil rights struggle, one part of me felt a sort of anger: ‘Boy, maybe we have not made as much progress as I thought, that the work and efforts we’ve been going through – my efforts to bring people together – were not as successful [as hoped].’ On the other side, part of me was laughing about the comment that ‘He’s from Howard County’. I was sort of half-mad, half-laughing.

Bethesda Beat: You opted not to file a complaint against the Park Police. But you subsequently discovered that part of the episode had been captured on video.

Leggett: I’m not one of those people who really harp a great deal about racial animosities and difficulties and challenges…The only reason this story came out was that I was talking to these young people at this rally. It was a week or so later, that someone obviously heard the story and asked could I verify it, and I did.

There was sort of a suggestion by the Park Police, in their response [as published in the Washington Post] that they weren’t sure the incident had occurred. Well, by the time they said that, there was a video that emerged. Once the story came out, the chairman of the Planning Board [Editor’s note: The Park Police are within the jurisdiction of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.] called me and said ‘Everything you said about the incident proved to be true, but we only have 30 seconds on the video.’ The whole incident took three or four minutes, maybe as long as five.

It was a dash[board] camera, but in some way – and we’re still trying to figure this out – they only have the last 30 seconds. By that time, the situation had de-escalated…and it was kumbaya.

Bethesda Beat: You have been proceeding with a program that would eventually equip the Montgomery County Police Department’s patrol force of nearly 900 officers with body cameras. Did your encounter with the Park Police influence you to move on the body camera issue?          

Leggett: I was already there, it just reinforced that for me. There’s a legal question about rights of privacy in recording that needs to be addressed one way or the other in the General Assembly. But we are moving forward. [Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger] wants to do a pilot, first starting with some of our training classes…We anticipate that as early as this summer – within this year certainly – we could potentially be moving forward on at least the pilot piece of it.

Keep in mind that body cameras and dash cameras can assist in providing more clarity in some cases. But it’s not a panacea for every situation, because you don’t capture everything. And people need to understand that it may help in a number of situations, but not necessarily every situation.

Bethesda Beat: In the Nov. 3 incident in which you were involved, do you believe a body camera would have captured the entire episode?

Leggett: In this case, it would certainly have been there. 

Bethesda Beat: Realizing that this incident involved the Park Police, did it nonetheless prompt a discussion with Chief Manger about additional steps for the Montgomery County Police, beyond body cameras, that could prevent such situations from occurring in the future?

Leggett: He and I have talked about it. I’m confident that, if something like this were to occur, that he would do the appropriate investigation and hold people accountable…You’re going to have some incidents that are going to cross the line. But the question is ‘Do you have the confidence that they will address those and make the necessary improvement and have the training to respond to that?’ And I think that we have.

You can have an outstanding police department, well managed and everything else, and all it takes is one or two bad apples in there. That’s the challenge.

Bethesda Beat: Do you get a significant number of complaints from minority groups and others in the county regarding incident involving the police? And would creation of a civilian complaint review board, which has been suggested by the county’s Charter Review Commission in the past, help to alleviate community concerns?

Leggett: I get some [complaints]. But when you think about, in our county, the number of interactions across a variety of cultural, religious and language [divisions], there is more of a potential for there to be a misunderstanding. The fact that we have not had huge numbers of them suggests that the police by and large are doing their jobs professionally, that the management in fact is holding people accountable, and that we have a force of which I think we can be proud. That does not mean you have not had complaints in the past that may have been justified, or that we may not have an incident at some point in the future.

[A civilian review board] probably could be helpful, but I’m not sure it is absolutely necessary…or would alter anything that I’ve seen thus far. You also have to look at Maryland law, which has a very strong due process protection procedure for police. I would have to see a greater demonstration of the need to say you necessarily have to go there.

Bethesda Beat: In the wake of last summer’s fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., one issue that emerged was the sharp disparity in the racial makeup between the police force and the population of that city. Likewise, in Montgomery County, the police force is about 80 percent white, while the county population is now majority-minority. Does more need to be done here to bring the composition of the police force and population into line, and would this help to limit future problems?

Leggett: We have done a great deal of outreach [in hiring], and clearly, we can and are trying to do more. We certainly need more minority officers who reflect the composition of the community. When the police force and management reflects the [local] demographics, I think people have a little bit more confidence…I can tell you that we have a huge challenge related to Latino and Asian-American officers. There’s been an emphasis to hire more African-Americans, and I think the chief and others are actively working to make that happen. [Editor’s note: Statistics provided by the MCPD shows a county patrol force that is now about 11 percent African-American, 6 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian-American.]

This does not in any way negate the responsibility of all officers to treat people with dignity and respect, and I assume and hope that everyone on this police force will do so. But we should also look to make certain that our police department is diversified. When I look at the efforts we are making, I believe that, as we go forward, you will see some of those numbers beginning to increase for minority officers.

Bethesda Beat: Speaking of the Ferguson episode, you were a law school professor prior to your election as county executive. You were recently quoted as saying you were “baffled” by the lack of a criminal indictment in the recent death of Eric Garner in a confrontation with police in New York. What did you find baffling about that, and were you also baffled by the absence of an indictment in conjunction with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson?

Leggett: First, an indictment is not a suggestion that someone is automatically found guilty. It is simply that there is at least sufficient evidence to hold one accountable. By the standards that you generally taught young people in law school, you can indict even a ham sandwich if prosecutors are willing to do so.

When you look at the [Garner] case, it’s clear that, in many ways, there’s a big issue of excessive force—and a failure with the number of officers there to use what I would think was appropriate means…to take [down] a person who was not, in my opinion, violently resistant. I don’t think there was an intent to commit a homicide. But I think the actions were clearly negligent, clearly excessive, and probably needed to have a greater scrutiny.

[In the Ferguson case], the problem is a little bit different, because we don’t have as much clear evidence. But there are things that are somewhat baffling in that situation; whether or not you’d indict is a different question. It appears as though the prosecutor did not balance the evidence in his presentation appropriately, that he did not follow the standard of law as it relates to the statutory law in the state of Missouri, and that he overly negated the testimony of people who would have probably had a more negative reaction to the police officer.

Bethesda Beat: In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has a serious political problem in his relations with the police force, many of whom perceive that he failed to be sufficiently supportive in recent comments. As chief executive of another large, multicultural jurisdiction, is there a fine line between support and criticism of the police force that has to be walked by someone in your position?

Leggett: There’s always a chance that any elected official can either phrase something wrongly, or make a mistake and overreact or fail to react. But the question that I have, as I’m trying to balance that against what the mayor actually said, [is that] the comments attributed to him for which there was a reaction [involved] his telling his African-American son of being mindful of how he conducts himself around the police. That is a serious situation about which many parents tell their kids and grandkids every day.

There’s a reason for that—and the reason is the experience that I just had.

Editor’s Note: More of the interview with Leggett, including his reflections on growing up in the segregated south, will appear in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.