2021 | Police & Fire

Departures, sagging recruitment plague Montgomery County police even as crime soars

Officers, advocates point to pay, pandemic and, most strongly, anti-police sentiment

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This story was updated at 7:20 a.m. Sept. 22, 2021, to correct a mistaken reference to a 2000 memorandum of understanding Montgomery County entered with the Justice Department. It was not a consent decree.

Attrition is spiking within the Montgomery County Police Department, and the number of officers signaling an intent to leave in the next several years has nearly doubled in a year’s time — even as recruitment lags and crime soars.

Officers, their advocates and a recent audit attribute the developments to low pay, pandemic fatigue and, most strongly, the nationwide wave of police skepticism and anti-law enforcement sentiment that followed the murder last year of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer.

The department has only 27 unfilled sworn positions, though brass and union leadership express concern for a “crisis” in the future.

Between April 2020 and April 2021, police resignations rose 26 percent, from 19 to 24, over the preceding 12 months. Retirements increased 18 percent, from 28 to 33, department data show.

Participation has also spiked in a program that incentivizes officers to enroll up to three years before they intend to retire, making it easier for the department to forecast vacancies and plan accordingly.

In 2019, 32 officers signed up for the program, according to a February 2020 memo on police staffing from the County Council Public Safety Committee. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, 62 officers enrolled.

The memo also pointed out that police recruitment efforts are not keeping up with “an upward trend in attrition.”

“I know three people this month who are retiring early,” said Lee Holland, president of Lodge 35 of the Fraternal Order of Police and a 14-year veteran of the department.

Replacing them is a challenge.

The police academy generally holds recruit classes twice a year, in January and July. The class that began in January 2018 had 706 applicants. Of those, 208 — nearly 30 percent — made the eligibility cut and took the test to become an officer. Over the past three years, the number of applicants has trended downward.

The class in January had 483 applicants. More than half — 271 — made the cut. That doesn’t mean they all joined the force.

The February staffing memo stated the current class had only 14 recruits.

How do you go from testing 271 applicants down to just 14 recruits? Background investigations weed out many.

“Departments can receive thousands of applicants per year, often with less than one-third of the applicants reaching the background investigation stage,” according to an audit released in June of Montgomery County police by Effective Law Enforcement for All Inc. It’s a nonprofit advisory group of police officials and academic experts hired to assess the department’s “leadership, education, accountability and practices.”

The audit contrasted the 1,000-plus applications the department previously received for new academy sessions with the fewer than 500 received more recently.

“Once the entire background investigations are complete, the Department is frequently left with fewer than twenty-five eligible well-qualified candidates to hire,” according to the audit.

Holland said some potential recruits don’t want to submit background information. Others don’t accept the county’s job offer and perhaps go to other departments. Some decide the job is just not for them.

Holland said a big part of recruitment used to be through active police officers who would recommend friends, but “we’re not getting that anymore.”

The 14 recruits cited in the February staffing memo were from the January class at the police academy. The July class produced 23 recruits, though Holland said three have already dropped out.

Asked if the recruiting numbers met the needs of the department, Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones told Bethesda Beat that they were “consistent with maintaining allocated staffing levels during those years. Therefore, they met the needs of our department per our budget.”

Montgomery County has 1.24 officers per 1,000 population, according to the February County Council staffing memo. The national average is 2.4, according to the FBI’s 2019 Uniform Crime Reporting program.

The department audit said the force had 1,304 sworn positions with 1,277 filled.

Holland predicted a staffing crisis “very soon.”

Jones said the department is at a “critical juncture” because 20 percent of the force is eligible for retirement.

Police chiefs across the country can relate. Like Jones, they’ve watched experienced officers walk out the door.

In nearly 200 departments, large and small, retirements were up 45 percent and resignations rose 18 percent during the same 12-month period that they spiked in Montgomery County, according to a survey in May by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

It called the staffing shortfall a “crisis.”

“I’ve been involved in policing issues for 25 years,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum and a former Boston police official who has consulted on a variety of law enforcement-related issues in the U.S. and overseas. “I’ve never seen it quite like this. We worry that someday, some city is going to wake up and recognize, ‘Gosh. We don’t have enough cops.’”

Jones said many officers feel “under siege.”

“That’s a feeling I think many officers have because there’s been a constant bombardment of legislation, critiques and public disdain,” he said. “People are quite frustrated. They don’t feel valued in this community. That’s my greatest leadership challenge, to try to continue to boost morale.”

Said Holland: “With morale at an all-time low, crime dramatically rising in the county, and officers leaving at a historic pace, we will be in a staffing crisis very soon. … With poor pay, mediocre benefits and a legislative body attacking law enforcement officers, it’s going to be extremely difficult to find the next generation of officers to fill the open vacancies.”

By key measures, crime is up in the county so far this year over the same period last year.

More homicides had been recorded by Sept. 14 this year — 25 — than in all of 2020, where there were 19. Compared with the period through Sept. 14 last year, nonfatal shootings are up 76 percent, from 17 to 30; aggravated assaults (which include nonfatal shootings) are up 21 percent, from 538 to 653; and robberies are up 17 percent, from 283 to 330.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020, Montgomery County police, like those across the county, have become targets for reform.

The General Assembly this spring passed several bills that spell out new requirements for departments around the state, including standards that limit the use of force. They also call for de-escalation training and the use of body cameras by on-duty officers by 2025. The bills passed despite vetoes by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Community activists say the new rules can’t come soon enough.

“I absolutely have to fear these people walking around with badges and guns,” said Carlean Ponder, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, which has pushed for police reform. “I have seen too many instances of abuse. It’s not a few rotten apples. We have a lot. We have a system that protects them. I’m supposed to be able to call them for help. … The county executive needs to do his job and get a chief in here who can hold officers accountable.”

Jones, who has been in the department for nearly four decades and chief since November 2019, said sometimes he gets frustrated, too.

“There are days I want to take the job and shove it,” he said.

But he quickly added: “This is a great police department. I really wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was. … I am committed to making this place better.”

Reasons that police officers are leaving the force vary, and some are predictable: the desire for career change, professional burnout, better pay elsewhere, according to Holland and others familiar with police retention.

The annual salary for entry-level officers in Montgomery County is $54,620, one of the lowest in the region.

Rockville pays entry-level officers $61,386; Washington, $60,199; Takoma Park, $58,346; Howard County, $58,240; Gaithersburg, $55,104; Prince George’s County, $54,040.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has also taken a toll. Among the police officials around the country who responded to the staffing crisis survey, and were promised anonymity, one said of his officers: “They also have pandemic fatigue.”

And not least among the reasons behind the blue exodus is an increasingly hostile atmosphere in which the people sworn to protect the community are viewed by some, particularly in the Black community, as a threat.

“Police are creating harm in certain populations, specifically the minority community in general,” said Robert Veiga, a member of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition. “Black men specifically have a hard time with police.”

Veiga and other activists have raised questions about fatal shootings by Montgomery County police officers, including Finan Berhe in 2020 and Robert White in 2018.

The Howard County State’s Attorney, which investigated the Berhe shooting, concluded that the officer involved was justified in using deadly force. An internal Montgomery County police investigation in the White case came to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, the county recently announced a $400,000 settlement with Arnaldo Pesoa. While Pesoa was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground after his arrest in 2019, Officer Kevin Moris kneed him in the back of the neck.

Moris was found guilty of assault, but a judge later cleared the conviction, giving him probation before judgment and requiring Moris to meet certain conditions. He remains on the force.

A McDonald’s drive-through in Gaithersburg was the scene of another fatal shooting in July. Police shot Ryan LeRoux, 21, following a standoff after officers saw a handgun on the seat beside the victim.    

Bernice Mireku-North, a Silver Spring criminal justice attorney, co-chairs County Executive Marc Elrich’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. She said the first call in the LeRoux shooting should have been for mental health assistance, “but that’s not how the police are currently trained.”

Mireku-North, who is running for state’s attorney, said the anti-police sentiment in Montgomery County is not strong enough to be the only reason for the spike in retirements and resignations.

“Yes, there are instances of hostility and disrespect towards cops, but there is a longer history of hostility, disrespect and even death of Black men at the hands of cops,” Mireku-North said. “People are rejecting that history and don’t want it repeated going forward.  We all want to feel safe no matter who we are. We’re too diverse of a county not to work towards this.”

But the recent audit said the attention given violent police encounters with suspects is making it harder to replace those officers.

“Recent well-publicized police use of force incidences have negatively impacted the public image of the police profession and have had a direct negative impact on hiring police candidates, nationwide,” according to the audit.

Floyd’s death became a watershed moment — for police, for Black Americans and for the country overall.

Police have been on the defensive ever since. Many law enforcement officials have said they cringed when they watched the video of Floyd lying in the street for more than eight minutes with an officer’s knee pressed on his neck.

As it has in other cities where police shootings or other responses have raised questions about a suspect’s constitutional rights, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.

Known as a “practice-or-pattern” investigation, its purpose is ”to reform serious patterns and practices of excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement.” The Justice Department has also engaged in court-approved consent decrees with numerous police departments around the country, large and small, to institute agreed-upon reforms.

Montgomery County entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Justice Department over racial profiling in traffic stops in 2000. In a related issue, the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight issued a report in July of this year that found county police were not recording data and reporting to the state as law requires in “an unknown number of reportable traffic stops … from 2007 to January 2021.”

The report raises similar questions to those in a 2020 report on police practices by the same office that found police searched vehicles driven by Black drivers more often than those with white drivers behind the wheel. The practice, according to the 2020 report, could “signal unconstitutional policing practices that should be uncovered and addressed.”