Montgomery County police union president says department moved away from community policing during the last 20-plus years

Union president says department has moved away from community policing since ’90s

Officials reiterate need for more mental health services in place of officers

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Torrie Cooke

Screenshot from electronic press conference

The head of Montgomery County’s police union said Thursday that he thinks the department has moved away from community policing during the last 20-plus years.

Torrie Cooke, the president of FOP Lodge 35, told reporters on Thursday that he recalled in 1994 a “nontraditional” approach that incorporated a “style of community policing.”

“Within that style, there were several options to include services that police officers could call upon when officers were involved in different situations. That rarely exists now. I think the lines of communications and the product that we have before has degraded,” he said.

Cooke’s comments came during a media briefing Thursday morning in which County Executive Marc Elrich outlined details of a task force that will audit the police department. The task force, using an outside consultant, will review policies and procedures of the police department, as well as aspects of the criminal justice system in the county.

Elrich said on Thursday that he hopes to launch the task force by Aug. 1.

Cooke said he thinks Elrich’s task force is important because it will help the police department “get back to its primary goal, which is to make life better for the community.”

“I think the conversation needs to be had, and policing should always be looking to move forward and not stay stagnant,” he said.

Elrich also reiterated his support for community policing on Thursday.

“Community policing is not creating a situation where communities feel that police are an are an occupying force. That is not community policing. We’re gonna have a long talk about that and how we rebuild trust between officers and the community,” he said.

When an editor asked what happened to community policing, Police Chief Marcus Jones said he disagreed “to some extent” that it had diminished. Jones cited officers in the central business districts of Silver Spring and Wheaton who patrol the areas on bike to address business and quality of life issues.

Jones also pointed to a team of officers in a Germantown neighborhood who he thinks helped curtail drive-by shootings.

“We were able to put our district community action team in that community … and we no longer had any additional shootings in that community,” he said.

Elrich’s task force is the latest effort by county officials to work on meaningful changes in the police department. Others include the County Council’s 13-member police advisory commission and proposed legislation to limit officers’ use of force.

The reforms have taken place at a time when people across the country are calling for the “defunding of the police,” which generally means the reallocation of dollars from the police to other services.

Elrich and some council members have said more money should be put toward adding social workers and other health professionals to intervene in crisis situations. This week, the council proposed adding six social workers to the county’s Mobile Crisis Team.

Jones on Thursday acknowledged that police in general have been forced to handle cases involving mental health crises.

“Police departments have been provided no choice but to deal with these issues as it relates to our community,” he said.

Raymond Crowel, the director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said 20% to 30% of people in county correctional facilities have mental health or substance abuse disorders. People get the help they need in jail, “but at the cost of a criminal record,” he said.

“”Prisons and jails have become the default hospital if you’re arrested and incarcerated,” he said.

The county’s police department has come under fire in recent years for several officer-involved shootings. One came in early May, when 30-year-old Finan Berhe charged at an officer with a knife and was fatally shot in the White Oak area.

Body camera footage of the shooting shows the officer, Sgt. David Cohen, giving Berhe multiple commands to get on the ground, and saying “I don’t want to shoot you.” Berhe then charged at Cohen, who shot him multiple times.

Elrich, on Thursday, in response to a question about whether anything could have been done to prevent Berhe’s death, said he wasn’t sure. But he suggested that had the responding officer stayed on the call long enough, he might have understood that the situation wasn’t dire.

“I don’t know whether Mr. Berhe would have made different decisions about charging the police officer,” Elrich said. “But without any effort to talk to the person when he was at a safe distance and try to engage him and see if there was any way to talk him down … if [the officer] had been on the call long enough to know that those people were safe and not being threatened, there may not have been the urgency for dealing with Mr. Berhe immediately.”

Elrich went on to say that he thinks the process of officers responding to calls should be reformed, including “how long [an officer] needs to stay on a call, and how much information should be relayed to a police officer who’s answering the call, so if it’s not a life-and-death issue at that moment, the officer knows that.”

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

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