2021 | Government

UPDATED: Task force recommends better police de-escalation tactics, review of use of force

Elrich convened group to review county police force, policies

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County Executive Marc Elrich speaks at an event on Wednesday.

Photo by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 6:28 p.m. on June 30, 2021, to include comments from multiple officials

A task force has recommended changes to the Montgomery County Police Department, such as reexamining how use-of-force incidents are reviewed and improving de-escalation tactics.

County Executive Marc Elrich convened the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force a year ago as one of multiple ways the county has tried to make changes to policing.

As part of the effort, the county partnered with the organization Effective Law Enforcement For All Inc. to “identify, evaluate, and recommend structural and systemic changes” in policing, Wednesday’s report states.

Effective Law Enforcement For All is a nonprofit that works with community leaders to make changes to policing, its website states.

A draft audit report released on Wednesday states that the police department doesn’t investigate all use-of-force investigations at the internal affairs level, although cases are reviewed at the district level.

“This method of review may allow for inconsistencies among varying districts in achieving a comprehensive and thorough force investigation,” the audit states.

The audit also notes that use-of-force incidents are often reviewed, but not investigated. Investigations differ in that they include statements from all officers involved in the incident, as well as civilian witnesses, photos and a review of the equipment of the officer who used force, the report states.

Wednesday’s audit also recommends that the police department consider randomly auditing videos of officers who used force, to “identify any possible training issues.”

The audit also examines other investigatory powers of the police department.

It says the department has recorded 18 bias complaints combined between 2018, 2019 and 2020.

But that number only refers to formal investigations that went through internal affairs. There might be other cases in which internal affairs didn’t find a bias allegation credible, but determined there was another type of misconduct.

“This is problematic in that the data is possibly distorted, inaccurate for reporting purposes and tracking,” it states.

Among the use of force changes recommended are:

  • Ensuring all use-of-force incidents are investigated
  • Creating a “force investigation team” within internal affairs to review the most serious cases
  • Requiring a “prompt, separate, parallel” administrative investigation for all cases in which an officer shoots someone.
  • Increase training to district supervisors that “holds them accountable for evaluating their officers’ videos with a critical eye.”

In its section on mental health response, the audit says currently 66% of patrol officers are certified in crisis intervention techniques, although the department currently uses a system in which officers self-report that they completed training.

“It is unclear if this reflects the current department numbers. It would be useful to know the percentage of the current CIT force, trained by year. These numbers would tell us how ‘outdated’ the department training is, without any real refresher, advanced, specialized training/response,” it states.

In its recommendations, the audit suggests that police use alternative uniforms and vehicles for specialized units, such as those dealing with crisis intervention.

“Stigma is exacerbated when marked police vehicles and regular police uniforms show up on scenes where someone is calling for help due to a mental health crisis,” it states. “Not only are people embarrassed to have a police cruiser in front of their homes, but uniformed police can also escalate a situation with someone in behavioral health crisis.”

Other suggestions include:

  • Creating a “steering committee” at the county and state level. The county committee would include representatives from the crisis center, jail, court, police department and other first responders. The state committee would include representatives from each county.
  • Including crisis intervention training annually, or at least every two to three years
  • Better tracking of the time between when mental health calls come in, when officers respond and when the patient is dropped off at a hospital or crisis center
  • Embedding a mental health case manager inside the jail

Elrich told reporters during a briefing Wednesday afternoon that there was only one crisis intervention team working in the county at the time an officer fatally shot Finan Berhe in May 2020.

Berhe, 30, was shot on May 7, 2020, in White Oak after he charged at an officer. Berhe was holding a large knife.

“If you think about the killing of Finan Berhe. … You don’t have time for someone to drive from Rockville to everywhere in the county,” he said.

Elrich said he hopes the county soon can expand the number of crisis intervention teams to reach more areas of the county faster.

The report released on Wednesday is a draft, and includes suggestions for how to improve training and hiring practices. It urged the department to increase its starting salary from the current $52,500 per year.

A 2019 staff report from the County Council’s Public Safety Committee found that eight jurisdictions in the region paid their officers a higher starting salary. Among the eight were Gaithersburg ($56,358 per year) and Rockville ($59,583).

Council Member Tom Hucker said on Wednesday that he is concerned about the lack of competitive salaries in the county relative to other police jurisdictions.

“That is just shameful, and we can’t treat our officers that way. We have to be competitive,” he said.

Lee Holland, vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, a union that represents county police officers, also urged county officials to increase starting pay. That recommendation is one of many in the report that the union agrees with, he said.

Holland also said the union agrees that the department needs to return to a community policing approach, which was phased out in the early 2000s.

During the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, Holland said the union is still evaluating the recommendations in the report.

It agrees that internal and criminal investigations for officers’ uses of force should run concurrently. But Holland said the union thinks each investigation should be handled by a separate section of the department, and not by internal affairs, as the report suggests.

“[A] criminal investigator [should] do criminal investigations and internal affairs, keep it internal, because it’s two different processes,” he said.

The final report will be issued in the fall.

The audit follows a similar one released in February by members of Elrich’s task force, that included 87 recommendations for the police department.

Council Member Hans Riemer, who is running against Elrich in next year’s Democratic primary for county executive, issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing the latest audit.

“The report fails to address how an MPCD effort to revise the use of force policy was delayed by the [police union] for ten years. The Council had to intervene with legislation, which is currently being challenged in court,” he wrote.

Riemer urged Elrich to support a bill the council is considering on reforming the collective bargaining system and “ensuring that MCPD is able to enact the very policy changes this report calls for without having them undermined by [the union].”

Elrich said the bill Riemer is referring to makes it difficult for the police department to work with the union. He said he wants to improve the county’s relationship with the FOP.

“I know what I want in terms of principle, but I know that working out of things, it’s important to engage the workforce. We’ve tried to engage our workforce broadly in the county as we do things, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t engage the workforce here,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com