2021 | Government

Feedback on county policing bills includes ideas for amendments

Some supporters want more accountability measures

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Three bills that center on changes to policing and overall government accountability were mostly well received during a public hearing on Tuesday.

Some speakers suggested amendments to improve the bills.

The first bill, spearheaded by Council Member Will Jawando, aims to improve police training. It would require prospective officers to complete a 30-hour training course that focuses on community policing, racial equity and social justice and conflict resolution, before they enter the local police academy.

Police leadership would undergo similar continuing education on those issues.

A second bill, also proposed by Jawando, would require the county attorney’s office to submit an annual written report about settlements to the County Council and county executive, and post it on the county website.

The third bill, from County Council President Tom Hucker, requires that all police in uniform, or with a badge or insignia, wear body cameras, and also proposes other accountability measures.

The police training course in the first bill would most likely be through Montgomery College, which developed a course fulfilling those requirements. Some testified Tuesday that they support the course, but oppose making it a prerequisite to the county’s police academy, as it would hurt recruitment of future police officers.

Lee Holland, corporation vice president for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 — the county’s police union — supports the bill, but suggested the course be offered during the academy, which would be less of an obstacle for recruits. The county police force is losing more than five officers per month, he said.

Caroline Sturgis, an assistant chief administrative officer representing County Executive Marc Elrich, agreed.

She added that a preliminary audit report of the county’s police department, with recommendations on how to improve police training and recruitment, will be released by the end of June, which might provide insight on how to improve the bill. 

Some people from Montgomery College, however, strongly supported the bill, saying they’ve worked on the corresponding police training course since last year. That included Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs at the college.

“We understand that our faculty and staff who help educate and train the next generation of police officers must do our part to help ensure officers have all the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to succeed in guarding our community,” Rai said. 

Jawando said in an interview he is open to moving the course to during the academy. He said the training is vital as “an evaluative tool” in determining whether candidates should become police officers. 

Jawando’s second bill, regarding the annual release of settlement information from the county attorney’s office, would provide the following information:

  • Who filed the lawsuit
  • How much the settlement was (anything less than $5,000 is exempt)
  • What the lawsuit was about
  • Which county departments or offices were involved in the lawsuit

The bill was prompted by an incident from January 2020 at East Silver Spring Elementary School, when two county police officers berated and harassed a 5-year-old boy, first reported by Bethesda Beat.

Body cam footage shows one officer grab the boy, take him back to school and put one of his arms in handcuffs to try to scare him into improving his behavior. Another officer put her face inches from the boy’s face and yelled at him several times to mock his crying.

The family is suing the county and the school district.

County Attorney Marc Hansen, speaking on behalf of Elrich on Tuesday, supported the bill’s intent, but suggested two amendments.

First, its scope should be narrowed to focus on suits for civil rights claims, which would eliminate cases like debt collection or worker’s compensation. Many would consider individuals’ information in cases like those to be private, Hansen said.

Second, Hansen said the cutoff for the settlements disclosed should be increased to $30,000. The minimum limit of $5,000 for settlements being disclosed, according to county law, was set in 1978, Hansen said.

The $30,000 is also the current standard used by the county’s District Court, he said. 

Holland reiterated his position that the union believes the bill targets police officers, as officers are the only county employees specifically named in settlements. Otherwise, the police union supports the bill, he said. 

Others who testified, including Ilhan Cagri of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, think the bill should include more information.

Cagri said the county attorney’s office should publish a list of allegations of misconduct by county law enforcement officers, dating back five years.

Jawando said in an interview that he would consider all of the testimony, but the intent of his bill was to provide more transparency across county government when taxpayer dollars are used to settle lawsuits. 

Some of the more recent high-profile cases have all involved police officers, he added. But it’s important for council members to have oversight power across all county divisions and agencies.

The council’s staff and the public would benefit from having a standardized system, versus having to ask for it from the county attorney’s office or through a public records request, Jawando said. And the bill would benefit the general public, he added.

There should not be ambiguity with how public dollars are being used to settle claims of misconduct,” Jawando said. “The public should know about that, because that’s how you have a functioning democracy and hold people accountable.” 

Council President Tom Hucker, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a recent interview that he didn’t know of any potential settlements in pending cases, outside of what might occur in the East Silver Spring case. But like Jawando, he said the bill lets council members better pursue their oversight role.

“They certainly make me wonder whether it has happened in the past, and whether we were aware of it. … If there had never been a lawsuit, we probably wouldn’t know about it right now,” Hucker said, referring to the East Silver Spring case.

Hucker also was lead sponsor on the body camera bill, which also requires the county police department’s Internal Affairs Division to review any body camera footage.

Internal Affairs would report to the police chief any case related to the use of force, involving children younger than 18, a potential criminal offense, or a fatality and serious bodily injury, among other circumstances.

The proposal also includes monthly reports from the Internal Affairs Division to the chief about active cases. The chief must tell the County Council and the county executive about those cases within 24 hours.

The police union spoke in favor of that bill, as did the local chapter of the NAACP.

Robert Landau of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said his organization would not support it unless:

  • There were a specific number of “random” reviews annually of police body cam footage 
  • Part of that review included retroactively checking on recordings from officers with prior misconduct complaints
  • Body cameras must be worn by undercover and plain clothes officers 

The council’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to discuss the body camera bill and the police training bill in a work session on July 22.

The settlement bill is scheduled to come before the council’s Government Operations Committee on July 19.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com