2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Bogged-down institutions stall, ponder, fail to meet the moment

Months of study lead to even more months of study

On Jan. 25, 2021, two Montgomery County police officers found a 5-year-old boy blocks away from his kindergarten class.

What followed next, according to a lawsuit by the boy’s mom, was “50 minutes of trauma.”

Allegedly, body-camera footage shows the officers telling the boy 20 times that he “should be beaten,” letting out five “primal screams” in the boy’s face, and calling the boy everything from a “violent little thing” to a “little beast.”

Back at the school, the police handcuffed the 5-year-old boy’s hands behind his back, telling him “these are for people who don’t want to listen,” his family alleged in a lawsuit.

We can all recognize the sheer depravity of emotionally abusing a child from a position of power. The mother’s description of that body-camera footage should move all of us to seek answers and consequences for that 5-year-old’s suffering.

But just how long should it take?

More than 13 months after the incident, the Montgomery County police internal investigation remains “ongoing.”

About 16 percent of that child’s life has passed in the time it’s taken the police department to look at body-camera footage depicting the alleged emotional abuse of a child and determine if it was wrong.

It may be said that this is simply the way internal investigations are handled in the Montgomery County Police Department. Some will argue this is simply “the process” that all bureaucracies in our community follow.

That’s exactly the problem.

Our county’s police department is just one of many local institutions responding to today’s urgent crises with maddening lethargy.

From the committee system of the state legislature to the school system’s central office, our longstanding institutions of public trust are structurally failing to meet our current moment. Institutional sleepwalking through endless process, deliberation and study of what we already know delay action we desperately need.

Take, for example, the issue of school resource officers.

Last June, in the wake of a long-coming national reckoning over racial injustice, school districts across the country began removing police officers from school buildings. This cut off one way that Black and Latino children are unjustly funneled through the criminal justice system.

Despite pressure from students, teachers, parents and elected officials, our school system opted not to boldly follow suit. Instead, it decided to mull.

A work group — an instinctual MCPS central office response to tough decisions — was formed and tasked with studying the issue. When the work group returned with its findings seven months later, it was sent back to study even more and return in another five months.

But we already know the facts. We already have access to national peer-reviewed research on the ineffectiveness of school police to prevent mass shootings or quell disruptions.

We already know the county arrest rates showing wildly disproportionate arrests of Black and Latino children in schools. We already have a litany of public testimony of school officers allegedly intimidating and assaulting students (such as through the use of a Taser and the use of force at a prom.)

What more could there possibly be left to study?

This kind of stalling-by-process is why our community has seen embarrassingly slow progress on all kinds of important issues in the hands of local institutions. From the safe reopening of schools to the continued prohibition of cannabis, the default tendency of our institutions toward indefinite deliberation over difficult decision-making is hurting our neighbors.

There is, of course, no neutrality to the status quo. When institutions dawdle, the people caught up in the unaddressed and ongoing harm at hand suffer.

A year of deliberation means little to a collective entrenched bureaucracy. But to a middle schooler struggling through remote school, a young person saddled with a permanent record for cannabis possession, or a 5-year-old boy now unsure if he can ever again trust a police officer, every day of inaction is painful.

Perhaps this is simply a reflection of who our institutions were originally built for. The system nearly always appears well-oiled to address the grievances of the wealthy and powerful — a demographic well represented within our local institutions.

But when a crisis falls disproportionately on our Black, Latino, disabled, poor and otherwise marginalized neighbors not at the decision-making table, institutional processes seem more likely to reflexively delay progress than urgently advance solutions.

We don’t lay blame for the torpidity of our institutions at the feet of any one individual within them. So many of our elected leaders and former colleagues are just as frustrated with the sluggish pace of progress through institutional mechanisms.

Even the Montgomery County police union has come out to argue that “internal investigations shouldn’t take a year to process.”

What those interested in change run up against are deep-seated bureaucratic cultures of adherence to process, and processes dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.

If we are to meet the urgent crises of our time — mass incarceration, a school-to-prison pipeline, even just one kid traumatized — we must all commit to envisioning dramatically reformed institutions and processes, dedicated not to stalling hard decisions, but to justice.

Nate Tinbite is a former student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy High School. Ananya Tadikonda is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Matt Post is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Sherwood High School.

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