2021 | Government

UPDATED: Council calls for hearing to review police treatment of 5-year-old boy

County leaders want to examine policy, learn how officers were disciplined

Body cam footage of the incident

This story was updated at 3:03 p.m. on April 1, 2021, to include comments from the Fraternal Order of Police and clarify details of the disciplinary process.

Montgomery County officials want a hearing to look at county police discipline and procedures after a video showed two officers accosting, handcuffing and screaming at a 5-year-old boy last year.

In the 51-minute video of body camera footage, which police released on Thursday, two officers can be seen and heard accosting the child on Jan. 14, 2020. The boy had walked away from his class at East Silver Spring Elementary School.

The officers who came to get him — Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday — screamed at the boy, including right in his face; repeatedly demeaned him; and tried to frighten him by snapping on handcuffs.

When the boy’s mother arrived and said she does not beat her son because it could get her in trouble, the officers urged her to beat the boy as needed to discipline him, as long as it does not leave visible injuries.

Bethesda Beat first reported on the video and the officers’ action after the boy’s mother filed a lawsuit in January. The family is suing the county and the school district, seeking more than $1 million in damages.

Bethesda Beat filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for the video in January. The department did not release the video until March 25, posting it on YouTube.

Several county officials blasted the officers’ actions once the video was made public. Some have called for the officers to be fired and said the department hasn’t told them how they were disciplined.

Some council members spoke in favor of an open, public discussion on the case, but they were not sure what the limits would be on the details that would come up because of the ongoing lawsuit and privacy related to personnel decisions.

The police department has said it took some action, but will not say what it was. The department said the officers are still employed there.

After the video was released, the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the officers, said in a statement: “We believe the event could have been handled better by all involved.”

Lee Holland, the corporation vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a phone interview Thursday morning that the yearlong investigation dragged on much longer than necessary. It should have been resolved within 90 days, he said.

The officers involved were not interviewed until August — seven months after the incident — and their discipline was not decided until January 2021, which was a year later, according to Holland.

The discipline of the officers was entirely decided by Chief Marcus Jones, since the officers did not file an appeal, Holland said.

“These long, drawn-out investigations are not fair for anybody,” Holland said.

In interviews on Tuesday, several council members pushed for a review hearing to determine what policies were not followed and what disciplinary actions have been taken with the officers and school staff members who did not attempt to stop the officers’ actions.

Council President Tom Hucker said officials are still deciding what they can do and have been in touch with county attorneys to determine the potential next steps.

“We’ll certainly have some discussion in the council about it,” he said, adding that there could be a hearing as soon next week.

On Friday, Bethesda Beat requested an interview with Jones to discuss the incident, department policies and expectations, and whether any changes would be made.

In an email, the police department instead copied a press release released earlier in the day and highlighted a line that said: “Due to pending litigation, the Department has no further comment.”

The statement said a “thorough” internal investigation was completed and the findings are “confidential.” But, the statement said, both officers remain employed by the Montgomery County Police Department.

The County Council said in a statement last week that it received the footage 23 minutes before it was publicly released, despite previous requests to see it. The council said it was “blindsided” by the sudden public release and expected greater advance notice.

“I requested this video and more information about this case from the chief months ago and I’m very concerned about why the investigation took so long … and why the video was withheld from the council for months,” Hucker said.

Jones and the department have not explained the delay, he said.

Questions about the officers’ tactics in this case come as the council and Elrich are taking a broader look at police tactics in general, some cases in which officers fatally shot people, and whether officers should be stationed in school buildings.

Hucker said he has had concerns about certain police interactions in the county, including the 2020 incident with the 5-year-old student, as well as a May 2019 incident in which a white officer used a racial slur while investigating a report of men trespassing at a White Oak fast-food restaurant.

When asked if there should be new leadership in the police department, Hucker said it’s “premature to talk about that.”

Hucker said he is still trying to find out the council’s options with the two officers’ treatment of the 5-year-old boy, but the officers “have no business [being] on our force” because of their behavior.

Council Member Hans Riemer said that if Jones’ discipline of the officers is inadequate, he would call for Jones’ removal.

“We don’t know anything about the disciplinary process at this time,” Riemer said. “The fact that I can’t tell you this information is symptomatic of huge failures in public policy. … I’d like to know what the chief’s decision was. If I’m not satisfied with how the chief handled this case, then I would call for the chief’s firing. I haven’t seen those facts yet.”

Council Member Will Jawando said the officers should be fired.

“We’ve all had a bad day and made bad decisions, but this was an hour-long display of lack of judgment and lack of humanity … to scream in their face and call them nasty and threaten to beat them. You can’t do that,” Jawando said. “You shouldn’t treat any human being like that, let alone a 5-year-old boy. If you’re acting that way, that’s not a momentary slip-up. That’s representative of your approach.”

Jawando said the hearing should include details and information on discipline against the officers.

“There’s just getting the actual transparency and what happened. What was the accountability for what everyone agrees was egregious and horrific and inconsistent …,” he said.

Jawando said the actions of the school staff also needs to be reviewed.

“To get answers to those questions, we need to look into the system’s failures,” he said. “What’s most disheartening about this is that every adult that was supposed to protect this child didn’t. … We need to do better. We need a review of those policies. This is clearly a violation of that.”

‘Scared straight’ situation

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the police department took some disciplinary action, but he did not know the details.

“We are constrained as to what I can say, which does not make me happy because I don’t like to be constrained. … In the meantime, what we’re going to do is we’re re-examining the training,” he said.

Holland said the FOP believes that the discipline was “in line of where it should have been” for the officers. The officers haven’t been in trouble before, he said.

“We should have never responded to that call. We should not have even been handling that. … There is no policy of what to do,” Holland said, adding that the union agrees that the officers’ behavior was inappropriate.

Elrich said the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force and a consulting firm have been working on that, including sending a consultant through the police department’s training. Specific training for deadline with youths should be part of officers’ training, he said.

“This isn’t just a training thing. When I saw the video, it looked like a ‘scared straight’ situation. We don’t do that,” Elrich said. “That’s not what officers are trained to do.

“There is a prevalent belief for adults in the community that the way you deal with kids is that you try to scare them into straightness. Let’s just say that they clearly exhibited their views on parenting. That’s not what they’re trained for.”

Elrich said it’s “impossible” to blame the situation on Jones because thousands of officers hired in the last 25 years have had a variety of different training.

“There’s no way the chief is ordering the people to do the things that we have found objectionable. … I just hate for him to take blame for stuff that he didn’t do,” he said.

Holland said the situation isn’t at a point of considering new leadership in the department.

“I think the details of how the questions are answered, of why things have happened the way they are happening, need to be answered before you can make that sort of call,” he said. “Is it warranted yet? I’m not sure.”

Under the current disciplinary process for officers, an officer can request an appeal to a decision made by Jones.

If the officer is represented by the FOP and the punishment is greater than 30 hours of suspension, the officer can appeal the action to a three-member alternative hearing board or a traditional hearing board.

For an alternative hearing board, one member is chosen by the police department and another by the FOP. The third member, the chairperson, is chosen from a panel of labor arbitrators by the FOP and county.

If an officer is not represented by the union or if the punishment is less than 24 hours of suspension, the appeal process is put through the traditional hearing board, which has three members chosen by the police chief. One member must be of the same rank as the officer under review.

Council Member Evan Glass said the council should have a full hearing to publicly discuss as much of the situation as it can.

“I understand there is an ongoing lawsuit, but there are many things we can discuss without stepping on the lawsuit. … What I know is that residents are rightfully concerned with what they saw and with the apparent inaction that has taken place,” he said. “We need to have a public conversation as soon as possible.”

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From the school system

In a joint statement on Friday, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and school board President Brenda Wolff wrote that there “is no excuse for adults to ever speak to or threaten a child in this way.”

They wrote that the incident “underscores the importance of having a team of professionals” to support “the diverse needs” of students, and added that the district expects MCPS staff to “follow outlined structures for student intervention and support.”

MCPS wrote that it directed schools to make sure “procedures and expectations” are clear to all staff.

When asked to explain further, MCPS did not provide any documents outlining expectations or procedures applicable to the situation.

District spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala referred questions to Smith and Wolff’s statement, but said, “It is imperative that we review and understand where, if anywhere, staff didn’t follow outlined processes and procedures, and make sure staff are aware of the right steps.”

Lynne Harris, the school board’s newest member, however, said regardless of district policy, the school staff should have intervened but didn’t.

“Clearly there were staff present that day that didn’t do what needed to be done,” Harris said. “That’s not something you shrug and say, ‘Oh well, we’ll do better next time.’ Was someone afraid? What happened? Because clearly what needed to happen didn’t.”

Harris said she has many unanswered questions about the incident: Why did the officers stay after the boy was returned to school? Has the family received support from the district and other organizations since the incident? When did the administration learn of the incident, and what was done immediately?

Harris said she plans to press for answers to her questions and to request that serious incidents be reported immediately to school board members.

“The system can say all it wants about, ‘There’s little we can say about pending litigation,’ but that still leaves almost a year where we should have been doing something, and I want to know, separate and apart from the lawsuit, what we did.”

Staff reporter Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.