2022 | Police & Fire

Montgomery County leaders searching for ways to address rising youth violence

Three of 14 homicides to date this year involved minors, according to police chief

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Montgomery County leaders are searching for answers when it comes to addressing a continuation of violent crime, especially incidents involving youths.

As of Tuesday, the county has recorded 14 homicides so far this year, according to police data and a count by Bethesda Beat. That total does not include the Jan. 17 death of a 16-year-old student at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. The teen died after taking a fentanyl-laced pill given to him by a 23-year-old man, who was later charged with selling the student counterfeit Percocet pills in connection with the case.

Three of the year’s homicides have involved at least one minor, county Police Chief Marcus Jones told Bethesda Beat in an interview Tuesday. The homicides are:

The homicides continue a trend of violent crime that the county experienced last year, which saw a total of 35 homicides recorded in 2021, according to police.

Gun seizures are also on the rise, Jones said. To date, 100 privately made, or “ghost,” guns have been seized in 2022, compared to 71 in all of 2021, he said.

County Council Member Craig Rice told Bethesda Beat last week that the county needs to “double down” on social and emotional learning in schools. He said a “high-level meeting” between county officials, school system leaders and law enforcement leaders was planned for this week.

“I’ve never seen [violent crime] like this in Montgomery County, or in this region,” he said.

Jones said he is concerned about the prevalence of guns in the community, and communication among teens on social media. Jones said there have been shootings involving groups of young people where it has been difficult to track the teens’ motives because the victims often don’t want to cooperate with law enforcement.

“We’re still seeing a significant number of shootings that occur, that we don’t quite know what the motive is because we haven’t arrested the suspect, and in some cases even the victims don’t cooperate,” he said. “And there’s also a level of retribution among certain groups, where they decide they want to handle this themselves instead of having law enforcement handle it. And so the way they handle it is that they are now going after these very individuals they believe took shots at them, or who may have shot them.”

Police have noted that a student, now 16, at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, who was shot and seriously injured Jan. 21 by a fellow 17-year-old student, did not initially tell anyone he was shot or identify the shooter, and only did so a few minutes later. Police have also said students who witnessed the shooting did not call 911, but instead posted about it on social media.

Jones said police have continued to encourage teens to contact authorities and not try to take matters into their own hands.

“We try to make sure that they understand that the best way to handle this is for us to handle the investigation in order to calm the violence and calm what’s happening in the streets,” he said.

County Executive Marc Elrich said during a May 18 media briefing that the county needs to “up the mental health ante” because of the feelings of isolation that people experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot of youth who do feel disconnected, who don’t know what they’re gonna do when they get out of school,” he said.

Elrich said he is particularly concerned by pre-planned meetings between groups because police won’t be there when the meeting happens.

Raymond Crowel, the director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said during the same briefing that he believes many people acquired ghost guns while most activities were still virtual during the pandemic.

“During the time we were in lockdown with the pandemic, people had a lot of time on their hands to search the web, find guns, build them and use them,” he said. “And of course, the challenge is once you’ve got a weapon, it increases the potential that you use that weapon, whether it’s for vendettas or for revenge or other criminal activities.”

Making the transition from virtual learning back to in-person learning has been particularly challenging for students, and could be a contributor to youth violence, Crowel said.

“Our young people have been in lockdown. They’ve been isolated and have been working through these virtual media,” he said. “And in these kinds of media, I can turn off my camera. I can turn off my microphone. I can say what I want to say, and there’s no real consequence. But now we’re back in person with each other, and the risk of saying something inappropriate or having an inappropriate interaction that turns sour and ends up with violence, potentially deadly, seems to be escalating.”

Whatever the solution is devised to address the rise in crime in the county, it shouldn’t involve adding more officers to the streets, Carlean Ponder of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition told Bethesda Beat on Friday.

Ponder said incidents such as the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Ryan LeRoux at a McDonald’s in Gaithersburg last year by four police officers demonstrate that there needs to be a different type of response than providing a heavy police presence when dealing with a mental health crisis.

“I agree there’s not enough that’s being done, but when we talk about what the solutions are, unfortunately, we go to what we know as comfort,” she said. “And for a lot of people that means ‘Oh we need more police. We need more armed police in the street. That’s the solution.’ Well, it’s not the solution.”

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