Bishop Paul Walker, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s nominee for chairman of the county’s new Police Accountability Board, is no stranger when it comes to local policing matters.
That’s because he served as a member of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, a group formed Elrich formed to examine local policing, county police programs, health and social programs, and other issues. Walker served on the task force’s Alternative Programs to Police & Jail subcommittee.
The Police Accountability Board, broadly speaking, will handle complaints about possible police misconduct. It also would advise the county executive and council on policing issues and review complaints of police misconduct filed by the public. Walker is one of nine candidates who could be confirmed by the County Council next week.
It’s also likely that Walker could serve on the Administrative Charging Committee, per county law, although those finalists have not been selected yet. That committee is tasked with reviewing complaints, which could include examining body camera footage and evidence. The committee also will interview witnesses, which could include any officer involved, and would recommend any administrative charges for officers.
Walker is a founder and senior pastor of Healing and Deliverance Ministry, which is headquartered in Derwood. He’s been involved in several local community organizations and was inducted into the county’s Human Rights Hall of Fame in 2018. According to the county, that recognition is awarded to individuals “for having made great personal sacrifices and contributions to human and civil rights in Montgomery County, either as trailblazers of the past or as current foot soldiers in the struggle.”
The pastor from Clarksburg talked about how he views policing and how he would approach the job if he is confirmed by the County Council next week. This interview was edited and condensed for conciseness and clarity.
There have been multiple incidents in recent years where police officers have shot young individuals, including multiple Black men. How do you view those incidents and how will that impact your approach to the job?
We have to say humanly that it does affect us, because we are all humans when we see a life lost. I think the motivation behind something like that causes me to want to dig to find the truth, through those specific instances — investigate them thoroughly, find out what actually happened. Because sometimes, we get emotional and we can jump the gun and see the emotional surface of the outcome, but we don’t know what led to that.
How much does the media landscape and social media contribute to that emotion and quick reaction?
Of course, I don’t want to be unfair to your profession. But I think to some small degree, I think the media has changed somewhat in its delivery. I remember growing up, the Walter Cronkites of the world, they were actual investigators who investigated and found out both sides, and then presented the news. More likely now, things are about the bottom line of “selling papers,” quote unquote. And of course you need to put something out there to get that emotional rouse from the people, to get them to pay attention. And then they present, maybe, the commentary. But I can’t blame it all on the media, because that’s unfair — because they are just people, and unfortunately [in these cases], the news has to be broadcast.
The County Council has passed legislation that requires more training for county police, along with requiring body cameras for all officers and more random reviews of the camera footage. What do you think of those bills?
I think it’s always a step in the right direction when we are creating avenues to not only allow the police to police themselves, as individuals and as officers, but to be transparent to our community, and the public — which includes police, too, because they are our community. I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As far as following those protocols, it’s something that needs to be mandated in the training — [because] you have this body camera for a reason, for its purpose.
When Ryan LeRoux was fatally shot by police outside a McDonald’s in Gaithersburg in July 2021, many elected officials and observers said the mental health response to the incident was inadequate. They also said that police are expected to do too much in today’s environment. Do you agree? [Four police officers shot LeRoux after a 90-minute standoff, where LeRoux refused to leave the drive-in lane after refusing to pay for his meal. Officers said they saw a handgun in the passenger seat of his SUV.]
There are a lot of mental issues that are misinterpreted … when the police are called. There are a lot of our Black, brown and indigenous community members who are really suffering a mental breakdown. And they really need a counselor, as opposed to law enforcement.
Is it a little much to expect a police officer who only has nine weeks of training through the academy to be able to diagnose a mental breakdown? In fairness, yes, I would say that’s a little much … Instead of maybe calling police, have a counselor go out on that call to evaluate whether this is a mental emergency as opposed to a criminal act? And I think in partnering in conjunction with police, I think it would make it a lot easier on them because we’re taking that weight and responsibility off them.
Members of the county’s police union and police supporters say that morale is low, leading to retention and recruitment issues within the department. What’s your perspective on that?
Morale is a difficult thing. There’s so many small factors that can reduce morale. In this perspective, I don’t believe that it is the larger majority of the police department whose morale is decreased, based on the things happening now and the laws coming in.
I think [among] those … that feel that they can’t act as freely in their misconduct anymore, morale might possibly be dwindling. But the general consensus of our police department here in Montgomery County, Maryland? I don’t believe it’s as low.
Yes, it is factual that the new training class was a class of 10 [officers] or something like that, [but] I think it is the general consensus that the morale isn’t as low as the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] like to suggest. I think maybe, yes, there is some truth to that, but I think police officers in our community, if we look at them really closely, [they see] that we are making some moves in the right direction.
How will your faith shape your role as chair if you are appointed to the board?
I think the influence of being a man of faith gives me that fair and equitable concept of socially, privately, professionally [how] to understand that people are people. And a badge, a uniform, or the lack thereof is not what makes a person. It’s the content of their character, as we once heard a famous man say.
So I believe it’s helped me to look at the content of each individual’s character, and as Maya Angelou once said, believe what people show you — and accept them for what they are, and deal with them according to who they are. That way you can have a mutual, reciprocal and hopefully positive conversation and outcome.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org