Montgomery County’s executive and police chief had diverging views on Tuesday on a program that places police officers in schools.
County Executive Marc Elrich and Police Chief Marcus Jones were part of a forum to discuss police reform and a national social justice movement that stemmed from cases in which police officers shot civilians.
When Jones and Elrich were asked about the merit of Montgomery County’s school resource officer (SRO) program, they disagreed.
Jones said officers ensure safety for students and maintain relationships with them, along with the school principal and the staff.
“Many people feel that the only function of a school resource officer is to arrest students, and that is not the primary goal,” he said.
Jones added that even without the SRO program, he would still be required to provide “adequate local law enforcement coverage” of schools under the state’s Maryland Safe to Learn Act.
“Montgomery County has a lot of schools. … And therefore, it would require a tremendous amount of work and responsibility for us to get those officers so that in my mind that those schools are provided with adequate coverage…,” he said.
Elrich said he has a “more mixed view” of the officer program and that it’s a “sad use of resources.” The money spent on SROs, he said, would be better used for other school resources.
“Montgomery County schools are horribly out of line with recommendations on school psychologists and social workers that we ought to have. And if I was to make the investment, that’s where I would put my investment,” he said.
The Board of Education, in June, authorized Superintendent Jack Smith to review the past three years of student arrest data from incidents occurring on school property. The data are expected to be shared with the board and the public by October.
By January, Smith is scheduled to recommend whether to modify or end the SRO program.
Tuesday’s virtual discussion was moderated by Steve Hull, the editor and publisher of Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat. It was sponsored by the Committee for Montgomery, a group of community leaders who advocate for the county at the state level.
The forum was called “Social Justice: The Direction of Legislation in Maryland and Beyond.”
Other panelists were:
- U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)
- Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh
- State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard County)
Elrich and Jones seemed to agree that there was a loss of trust between the police and the public. Elrich said going back to a model of community policing was the key.
“We’ve got to build back to a level of trust and confidence that has really eroded,” he said.
Jones said he worries about declining morale within his department.
“Sometimes, the officers feel as if the community is not supporting them. When they feel like the community’s not supporting them, they feel like their sense of worth is really not much,” he said. “They feel like what they’re doing is actually being criticized more than it is acknowledging the work they do when they go out each and every day.”
Raskin said he has attended six or seven protests in Montgomery County supporting the Black Lives Matter movement this year, and has observed positive interactions between officers and protesters. But that “is not the case in most parts of the country,” he said.
Raskin touted the George Floyd Justice in Police Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this summer and has moved to the Senate.
The legislation is named for Floyd, a Black man who died on May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes while Floyd was pinned to the ground during an arrest.
Raskin said the legislation has 15 components, including abolishing racial profiling, getting rid of chokeholds and carotid holds, and putting restrictions on the use of qualified immunity for officers — protection from lawsuits under certain circumstances.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to revive the legislation before this Congress is all over, but if not, that we’ll be able to get it passed next year,” he said.
Frosh said his office has worked on creating guidelines for every law enforcement agency in the state to prevent racial profiling and worked to get the state’s Court of Appeals to reduce the use of money bail.
“We have thousands fewer people in jail these days, because we used to hold people for whom small amounts of bail had been set,” he said. “They only needed $100, $200, $500 to get out of jail. But they didn’t have it.
“So people were being incarcerated because they were poor. That’s been reduced significantly, but we still have a long way to go on that.”
Asked what her main social justice priority is, Atterbeary said she wants state legislation mandating a statewide use-of-force and mandatory body-worn cameras for officers.
Atterbeary, who is Black, said she has had to talk with her three children a number of times about interacting with law enforcement because of the potential for racial profiling.
She recalled one interaction with her middle son when he was 5 and she picked him up from school
“He said to me, ‘Mom, when I get shot I hope I survive.’ And I had to hold back my tears, because that wasn’t a thing when I was growing up,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org