Residents says police reform bill needs more work

Limiting force helpful, but more police reform needed, residents tell council

Some testify that bill needs more work

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More than 20 people spoke Tuesday in support of a proposal to limit the use of force by police in Montgomery County.

But the current bill is not enough, many of them said, and needs to place more regulations in place such as banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds.

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said at the hearing that the police department “in general” supports the intent of the legislation.

“There are several details of this bill that I feel need further clarification and amendment,” he said. “I would like to note that the department currently has a robust and well-contemplated use-of-force policy. Many of the requirements of this legislation are met or exceeded by the department in our current policies.”

The proposed legislation would change the county’s use-of-force standard from “reasonable” to “necessary.”

Jones, when asked in an interview with Bethesda Beat last month about the use-of-force bill, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that officers are to be judged on whether the use of force is “objectively reasonable.” (Bethesda Magazine will publish the entire interview with Jones in its September/October issue.)

Jones said an officer who uses deadly force is likely to be judged harshly, regardless of whether the standard is “reasonable” or “necessary.”

“As we look at preserving life, no one wants to take a life. But you’re gonna be judged as a result of your actions regardless. And so that’s an important term that needs to be discussed,” he said in the interview.

All officers must carry out duties without discriminating, Jones said during the forum on Tuesday.

Chokeholds are considered deadly force, according to Jones.

“We have not taught it as a defensive tactic at our academy since [December 2002],” he said.

The council is considering some measures as a reaction to a new nationwide focus on the actions of police and whether to redirect police funding into community services for mental health and other resources. The police department has announced changes of its own, apart from legislation, such as implementing a policy that requires officers to intervene when they observe excessive force by other police officers.

The proposed legislation would set minimum standards for “the use of deadly force, the use of carotid and neck restraints and required intervention by officers when another officer is violating law or police,” according to a staff report.

It would allow police offices to use deadly force and neck or carotid restraints only if there were an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. It would also not allow a police officer to strike a restrained person and would protect officers from retaliation if they intervene with other officers who are violating the policy.

A more thorough discussion is needed to clarify certain terms in the proposed bill, such as “deadly force,” “de-escalation,” “neck restraint,” and “restrain,” Jones said during the public hearing.

“Any changes to this policy must be made with care and thoughtfulness. … I cannot overstate its importance in our profession. I ask that any legislation that affects this policy be carefully contemplated and evaluated judicially,” he said.

The county’s Public Safety Committee is expected to discuss and review the legislation on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

Several speakers recounted incidents in which they said county police officers assaulted them or used excessive force when they were called for help in mental health situations.

Council Member Will Jawando, who spearheaded the legislation, was the only council member who spoke during the hearing. He urged the public to call the county’s Customer Service Center at 311 if they wanted to anonymously report an incident of police brutality.

The legislation is one of many steps the county is taking to address issues with policing, he said.

“This is part of a process and we realize that this is one piece — a critical piece of a larger puzzle of how we reimagine public safety. … We understand and appreciate the comments and know that we have more work to do.”

Several residents said at the hearing that money used for the police department should instead go to hiring more mental health professionals to respond to nonemergency calls.

Asha Henry of the Takoma Park Youth Council said a use-of-force standard requiring officers to exhaust all other alternatives is the “bare minimum.”

“This bill must only be the beginning of widespread police reform in our county,” she said.

Ana Martinez of CASA de Maryland said the language in the bill needs to be stronger.

“The killing of Montgomery County residents is never OK. We need clear language that ensures neck restraints are never permitted, prohibits no-knock search warrants, and doesn’t allow shooting at vehicles,” she said.

Many of the residents who spoke mentioned the deaths of three Black men who died after being shot by Montgomery County police officers: Emmanuel Okutuga on Feb. 19, 2011; Robert White on June 11, 2018; and Finan Berhe on May 8, 2020.

If a stronger police use-of-force policy was in place at those times, then perhaps their lives could have been saved, some residents said.

Several of them also said they support recommendations for amendments to the legislation proposed by the Silver Spring Justice Coalition.

Robert Veiga of the coalition said the members saw the bill “as a Band-Aid rather than a real solution.”

The coalition’s recommendations for changes to the bill included banning chokeholds, no-knock search warrants and shooting at moving vehicles.

“We implore the council to really examine the core of the problem, which is the role of racism in law enforcement, the racial injustice in the criminal justice system and the racial inequities within our own communities and districts,” Veiga said. “If you do this, the use-of-force conversations will be in the past.”

Resident Stephanie Guttormson called for the council to completely pull funding from the police department and create a new, reimagined public safety department that would “replace and restrict deadly force” by sending other trained professionals to emergency calls that apply to their expertise.

“It is a bare minimum bill and in truth, the council should go much further,” she said of the legislation.

Michael Rubin, a Takoma Park resident, said the police department “greatly needs” more accountability.

“I hear frequent stories of the profiling, harassment, abuse that my Black and brown fellow residents are subjected to by Montgomery County police officers on a daily basis,” he said. “I’m fairly confident that if I were in their shoes, I would do everything in my power to avoid any interaction with the police. … [I implore] you to have the courage and humanity to actually take on what is clearly broken.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the council had another public hearing on legislation that would create a civilian assistant chief of police position that would focus on community engagement and evidence-based policing methods, and provide more supervision and accountability in the department.

Jones spoke during the hearing and supported the potential position.

Another public hearing was held on spending $592,202 to increase the county’s mobile crisis response team, which responds to non-police calls to help people in a behavioral health crisis.

The team currently has two members. The funds would add six additional social workers.

No votes have been scheduled on the two items.

Justice Coalition speaks

During a press conference on Tuesday morning, Justice Coalition members said they want the county’s reforms to go beyond what is already proposed.

Tiffany Kelly, a spokeswoman for the organization, called for a ban on no-knock warrants, the publication of all police internal investigations, the removal of police officers from schools across the state and the repeal of the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights.

Kelly said her organization supports a proposal by Council Member Tom Hucker to expand the county’s mobile crisis response unit. She said Berhe’s death could have been prevented if mental health professionals had intervened instead of police.

“Had there been an option for a mobile crisis response, he might still be alive today,” she said.

Kelly’s plea for more mobile crisis units was echoed by Zegai Tesfu, a cousin of Berhe who spoke at the press conference.

“I believe if we have more units like this in the system, it will help de-escalate situations instead of corrupt police officers killing unarmed black men,” he said.

Jones told Bethesda Beat last month that the police will never be “totally out of the mental health business.”

“That has to be understood by our community. If you talk to the mental health professionals, they’re gonna tell you, ‘Yeah, there are times we need the police to go with us to treat a client or address their client that’s in crisis,’” he said.

In the case of Berhe, who had a knife and ran toward an officer before he was shot, Jones said he thinks it’s unlikely that a social worker would respond to such a call without the police involved.

The activists on Tuesday also called for a reopening of a review of Anand Badgujar, the police officer who shot White. An internal review by the department in April 2019 cleared Badgujar, and found that his use of deadly force was justified.

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

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