Montgomery County residents delivered raw comments about their interactions with police at a town hall-style discussion Tuesday night in Silver Spring that laid bare the discomfort some feel about local law enforcement.
County Executive Ike Leggett began the evening by saying the county and police must accept the reality that blacks have been raising issues about stereotyping and abuse by officers for the past 50 years.
“The only way to solve that problem is to admit we have a problem,” Leggett told a diverse crowd of about 250 people at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
The event was billed as a town hall-style discussion to allow residents to express their concerns about local police after events in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Minnesota demonstrated the country is still grappling with issues involving race and police relations nearly two years after unrest broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.
The discussion included intense moments as black residents shared how they must teach their kids how to interact with police and how they’ve been stereotyped by officers and criticism as others detailed questionable interactions with local officers.
As residents spoke, police Chief Tom Manger sat at the front of the room, mostly listening. Council members including Tom Hucker and Marc Elrich were also at the meeting, which was moderated by James Stowe, the director of the county’s Office of Human Rights.
— Tom Hucker (@tomhucker) July 20, 2016
“I used to want to be a police officer,” a teenage black girl said from the back of the room. “Then my dreams were crushed in several different ways.”
The girl explained she believes she was once unnecessarily assaulted by an officer who stopped when he saw her white mother enter the fray—she said she was adopted from Haiti. She said she often gets looks of disgust from officers.
“My mother didn’t tell me to be careful of the police because she didn’t know to be careful of the police,” the girl said.
A young black man said he has learned to be constantly wary of police after being intimidated in the past.
“I commend you for sacrificing your time, your lives,” the young man said. “However, being somebody that can take off their badge and take off their uniform, always remember that some of us can’t take off this uniform.”
Heather Phipps, a white Silver Spring resident, told the chief about an incident she saw last week that continues to bother her. She said around 8 p.m. Friday she was driving along Fenton Street when she saw three officers and one of them was pulling down a black man’s pants repeatedly at a gas station, showing his underwear in full view of the street.
Despite having her daughter in the car, Phipps stopped and went to the scene as the officers let the man go without arresting him. She said one of the officers said it was his right to search a man in that fashion and that sometimes people hide drugs in their underwear. She said the officer refused to provide his badge number or name.
She said she followed up by calling the police department’s internal affairs office and filing a report. She also said she left messages with two lieutenants at the Silver Spring police station, who did not return her calls. The only response she got from police was that her internal affairs complaint would be returned to the Silver Spring station to investigate, she said.
“So basically they’re just holding themselves accountable,” Phipps said, adding later that she feels accountability issues need to be raised with state legislators in Annapolis.
Manger said he was concerned police didn’t return the woman’s phone calls and encouraged her to talk to the deputy commander of the Silver Spring station, who was in attendance.
A panel including Linda Plummer of the NAACP, Police Chief Tom Manger and Mansfield Kaseman of the county's Faith Community Working Group, answered community questions at the event. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Gabriel Acevero, a 25-year-old black man who serves as vice president of the African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County, pressed Manger on what happened to an officer whose use of force was questioned after a 2014 Germantown incident was caught on camera. The incident showed the officer appearing to put his hands on the neck of a black teen who was later arrested for failing to provide an ID and being in possession of a cigar.
Manger said “appropriate action” was taken after the incident and the officer remains on his beat. Manger also informed the audience that state law prevents him from discussing internal affairs investigations.
Manger’s response led to questions from the audience about how the public is supposed to find out about questionable incidents, given that the police investigate them and the results are not made public.
“It doesn’t do much for transparency and accountability if the community doesn’t know,” a man who identified himself as a civil rights attorney said from the back of the room.
However, others praised police for the efforts in the community.
Amjad Chaudhry, a member of the county’s Faith Community Working Group, gave police an A grade and explained that officers he has interacted with have been helpful and understanding.
Sahar Khamis, who identified herself as a county resident and a professor of communications at the University of Maryland, said she would also give county police a top grade for their performance. She said other segments of society must step up as well to prevent racism—including the faith community and educational institutions. But she said it was most important that the county was hosting an event where “people can speak their heart, without being afraid to share their thoughts.”
“I am very proud and happy to be a resident of Montgomery County,” Khamis said.
Linda Plummer, the president of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP who sat next to Manger at the front of the room as people spoke, said it’s vital to air these issues.
“We need a criminal justice system that is colorblind and nonpolitical,” Plummer said. “We need all of you to come together and admit there is an issue with black and brown people and our police department.”
The discussion is expected to continue Wednesday night, when a second town hall session is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Blackrock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Dr. in Germantown.
Update – The county changed the location of Wednesday night's meeting in Germantown from the Upcounty Regional Services Center to the Blackrock Center for the Arts. The story has been updated.