2021 | Government

UPDATED: Council disappointed with briefing on police incident with 5-year-old

Officials want closed meeting for more discussion due to pending lawsuit

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On March 26, the Montgomery County Police Department released the body camera footage from an incident involving a 5-year-old in January 2020.

Screenshot from video

This story was updated at 8:09 p.m. on April 6, 2021, to include additional comments from council members.

Montgomery County Council members said they were underwhelmed by a briefing with police and school officials on Tuesday to discuss an incident between two police officers and a 5-year-old boy last year.

In January 2020, two officers accosted, handcuffed and screamed at a 5-year-old boy who walked away from his class at East Silver Spring Elementary School.

A 51-minute video of police body camera footage, released on March 25, shows the two officers — Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday — screaming at the boy, demeaning him and trying to frighten him by snapping on handcuffs on Jan. 14, 2020.

After an internal investigation and discipline, and the public release of the video a year after the incident, County Council members hoped that Tuesday’s briefing would shed more light on the police response, policies, training and discipline.

But Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones and Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith did not answer most council member questions because of pending litigation.

Council members said the briefing and conversation were “unsatisfying” because of how many questions police and school district officials could not, or would not, answer.

Jones declined to answer questions regarding the specific response to the situation, including why the officers stayed at the school after they returned the student and what discipline was determined to be appropriate for the officers, who remain employed with the department.

When asked if the officers were still in positions in which they could respond to a similar situation again, Jones said yes.

The council hopes to get more details in a future closed meeting.

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

The police department received a complaint in January 2020 about the officers’ actions, the same month as the incident. The complaint was assigned to an investigator in the police department’s internal affairs division, which is staffed by a captain, a lieutenant and six investigators.

Jones said investigators have a caseload of about five or six cases per year.

Under the state Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, the department has approximately one year from the date that the complaint was brought to the department to bring charges for any administrative violation.

Investigators have to interview witnesses, collect evidence, interview involved officers, and include a review panel to make a recommendation for discipline to Jones.

Jones said he did not receive the recommendation or watch the body cam footage until December. The two officers were interviewed in August 2020.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the union that represents Montgomery County police offices said in a statement last month, when the video was released, that officers “do not receive specific training to address events like the one that occurred on January 14, 2020.”

But Jones told the County Council on Tuesday that every officer is trained in de-escalation policies.

When Council President Tom Hucker said the training “failed” in the incident, Jones replied that it would be a “debate about whether this was a de-escalation situation.”

During the council meeting, Smith said he and school board members receive “serious incident reports” for some events at schools — like fights, fires, threats or when police are called. The reports are brief and do not provide much information, Smith said.

There was a serious incident report about the situation at East Silver Spring Elementary at the time, but school district leaders were not aware of the severity of the incident until Bethesda Beat published a story about the family’s lawsuit in January 2021, Smith said.

Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, said county officials were not aware of the incident until the Bethesda Beat story was published.

In the video released in late March, an MCPS staff member can be heard saying it is district policy to call the police any time a child leaves school grounds without permission. However, such a policy was not found in a Bethesda Beat review of current and past MCPS policies.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote in a text message last week that there “isn’t a specific policy that staff call police if a student leaves campus.”

“It really depends on the situation and concerns for safety,” she wrote.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Smith told County Council members that MCPS’ policy when a child leaves school is “to find the child and return them safely to school or their family, depending on the circumstances.”

School leaders are expected to immediately notify the child’s family, and if the situation is urgent, employees may follow the child off campus to ensure their safety, call the police department’s non-emergency number, or call 911, Smith said.

Smith said it is a “rare and unusual circumstance” that an elementary school child would leave school unaccompanied or without permission and that the school “would have to call for additional support.”

Smith repeatedly declined to answer questions about the specific case, MCPS employees’ behavior or possible disciplinary action against them, citing pending litigation.

Council Member Hans Riemer said the briefing was an “unsatisfying conversation” because the council and the public were not getting enough information.

“There’s two reasons for that. Some of that is state law,” he said. “The chief cannot share with us what discipline was handed down in this case because of the Maryland Public Information Act. … That is an essential question that I have. I am concerned that this incident was not treated with the seriousness that it deserves.”

Riemer said that everyone involved was “hiding behind” the lawsuit.

“The county government needs to stop hiding behind this lawsuit. What happened, happened. What we say about it doesn’t change the facts,” he said. “The county executive needs to stop hiding behind the lawsuit [and] share information with us. The department needs to treat this differently, as well.

“The county is defending MCPS, so I am sympathetic more to MCPS’ posture that they’re not able to make as much of a decision about what they say because they’re not the ones liable.

“That’s why the county needs to step up here and admit some facts that are obvious that we all know. This child was treated in a horrible manner. It was a terrible, terrible offense to this child.”

Riemer has previously said that if Jones’ choice of discipline was inadequate, he would call for the chief to resign. Council Member Will Jawando has called for the two officers to be fired.

Council Member Evan Glass said Tuesday that the officers’ actions were not the result of a lack of training.

“I’m not quite sure what there was to de-escalate. The officers were dealing with a 5-year-old child who was crying. I don’t think a police officer, or quite frankly, anybody, needs to be trained in how to deal with a child in need,” he said. “There’s just some common sense with that.”

Council Member Craig Rice said the incident was a “gross misstep.”

“We know that this young child is going to remember this incident for the rest of his life,” he said.

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