Montgomery County Council committee rebuffs Will Jawando's call to eliminate resource officers

UPDATED: Council committee rebuffs Jawando’s call to eliminate school resource officers

Some council members say officers are valuable for helping students

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This story was updated at 11:52 p.m. on July 14, 2020, to include more comments from the committee meeting. It was also updated at 9:48 a.m. on July 15, 2020, to clarify Hucker’s position about school resource officers.

A Montgomery County Council committee rebuffed a call from another council member to end the county’s program that puts police officers in schools.

Council Member Will Jawando wants to eliminate the school resource officer program. He asked three other council members to support his idea when the three met as a Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

But two of the three Public Safety Committee members — Council President Sidney Katz and Council Member Gabe Albornoz — said they don’t support getting rid of the program. They would like to see more analysis of it before making any lasting decision about its future.

That includes seeing what the Board of Education has to say about the school resource officers, also known as SROs.

However, the third member of the committee — Council Member Tom Hucker — supports ending the school resource officer program. He said in an interview on Wednesday morning that he would like to end it immediately if state law allows it.

“The question isn’t are SROs more good than bad or more bad than good? It’s, are SROs the best use of school resources?” he said. “We need nurses and school counselors more than SROs.”

Council Member Craig Rice also attended the committee meeting and voiced his opposition against eliminating the program.

There are currently 23 SROs in 23 of the 26 public high schools in the county.

In a memo on Tuesday, Jawando wrote that half of all Montgomery County students arrested over the last four years are Black. But Black students make up a fifth of the student population, he said.

“Over time, our county government has chosen to prioritize funding of police in schools, instead of those best equipped to assist our students with counseling and mental health assistance,” he wrote.

Jawando suggested reassigning the officers to other public safety needs, arguing that now is the time to do it, while school buildings are shut down.

But Albornoz and Rice insisted that students have benefited from the presence of officers in schools. They said they have heard from students who appreciate the officers and have reported that officers have helped them in various ways.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Albornoz, Katz and Rice talked about why they support keeping the program. Jawando went over his reasons for ending it. Hucker did not express his position on the program during the meeting, but said he had concerns about it. He brought up questions that he thinks should be considered.

Hucker wrote in an email on Tuesday: “I didn’t want to push the point at the committee because it was clear going in that” Katz and Albornoz were in favoring of keeping SROs.

The council members discussed the SRO program during a Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said at the meeting that this year, 27 students were arrested at high schools in the county. Mandatory arrests are made for assault, theft, intent to distribute drugs and bringing weapons into the schools.

There’s a false belief that SROs are only in schools to make arrests, Jones said, adding that he adamantly opposes that idea.

“They’re not going through the halls to arrest each and every day,” he said.

In addition to the discussion about SROs, the committee discussed cuts to the police department’s budget for the current fiscal year. County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed $8.5 million cut to the department included eliminating 27 sworn police officer positions that are vacant. Those include five SRO positions at MCPS middle schools.

The cut was part of Elrich’s recommended revised spending plan for the fiscal year because of the expected loss in tax revenues. He proposed cutting $66 million from the budget and asked all county departments to find up to 6% in savings from budgets.

Elrich proposed abolishing the 27 positions, as well as four and a half civilian positions within the department.

But Susan Farag, a legislative analyst for the council, instead suggested delaying the cuts — referred to as a “lapse” — until more information could be gathered on police operations from the Policing Advisory Commission, which is under formation, and other entities.

“Lapse can be deleterious to departmental operations; however, abolishing positions permanently reduces the department’s sworn officer capacity, which may be necessary to make changes based on any information provided by the reviewing entities,” according to a staff report.

The committee unanimously voted to “lapse” the positions instead of cut them.

The committee members also unanimously supported other cuts to departments, including Fire and Rescue.

Elrich proposed cutting $2.3 million from the department. The largest chunk — roughly $2 million — was proposed from reducing this year’s class to 37 recruits, down from 57.

The committee decided to keep the 57 class recruits because of problems with unbudgeted overtime.

According to a staff report, there have been cost overruns of $8 million a year “over the past several years.” Delaying and reducing the recruits would have saved about $1.6 million, but caused $1.7 million in additional overtime, the report said.

An additional 160 firefighters are needed to meet minimum coverage requirements, according to Farag.

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

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