Montgomery County police chief talks about George Floyd, the pandemic

Bethesda interview: Police Chief Jones

The chief of the Montgomery County police talks about George Floyd’s death, what he told his own kids about dealing with law enforcement, and one of his proudest moments

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Chief Marcus Jones at a memorial for fallen officers on the campus of Montgomery County police headquarters in Gaithersburg. Photo by Joseph Tran

In 2006, Marcus Jones, his wife and their two daughters got out of the car at Gaithersburg High School and headed to the football field to see Jones’ son play. Jones felt eyes on him in the parking lot and noticed two guys staring his way. Being a cop, this put him on high alert. After entering the stadium, his family went ahead to their seats while Jones found himself approached by the two men.

“You remember us?” one asked.

Jones, expecting trouble, said he didn’t. The men said Jones had busted them for possession in the early 1990s and then lectured them for being too old and irresponsible as fathers to be hustling drugs and using crack cocaine. As a result of that conversation, one proudly told Jones, “We’ve been drug-free for 10 years.” Jones was still processing all of this when he rejoined his family. Later he would call it “one of the proudest moments of my career.”

Now Jones, 56, is facing perhaps the most challenging time of his 35-year career, following a 10-month selection process that came full circle. After serving as acting Montgomery County police chief from June to November last year, Jones finally was nominated for the permanent position after County Executive Marc Elrich’s first three choices dropped out. Jones admitted publicly at the time that the process “was really a kick to the ego,” but reasoned that “it’s not how we started—it’s how we finished.”

Jones grew up in South Boston, Virginia, a major tobacco center 20 miles from the North Carolina border. He joined the Montgomery County Police Department in 1985 after majoring in business administration at the University of Maryland. After serving as a police officer and detective for 15 years, Jones rose steadily to sergeant in 2000, lieutenant in 2004 and captain in 2011. He also served as the drug enforcement commander, headed up the major crimes division, and was commander of the Silver Spring division. In 2018, he was promoted to assistant chief and supervised all investigation divisions. Jones is a former chairman of the National Black Police Association, and recently served on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s board of directors. Two of his adult children teach in the Montgomery County school system, and the third works in public relations for the National Restaurant Association.

Bethesda Magazine met with Chief Jones in late June at the Montgomery County Police Department’s headquarters in Gaithersburg.

What brought you to policing?

My father was a Baltimore City deputy sheriff, so he was my introduction. I went to college, but I was a business major and that was my intended path. Then my older brother became a police officer in Montgomery County in the early 1980s, and that was my push. I was struggling to put myself through college. The county had one of the most progressive police departments. I did a couple of ride-alongs with my brother just to see what was involved. I thought I had the ability to help people, make a difference. I hadn’t yet been exposed to the business world, so I didn’t know what that looked like. I thought I’d try [policing] for a few years and see how it worked out.

Is this a good time to be chief, or do the challenges seem overwhelming?

It was already challenging when I first took over; there was a lot of change before us. Then COVID-19 hit, and that was a big change. It’s had an impact on the community but also on the police force and how we can continue to do our jobs. We have done planning for different kinds of epidemics, but never to this degree where we’re being asked to adapt and think a different, drastic way—and do so quickly. Most of this is being done by the county government and the emergency management team. We have been getting calls about people [not] wearing masks in stores, and recently we have restaurants not abiding by the governor’s regulations. We’re supporting the [county] board of health in this.

What was your reaction to the death of George Floyd?

This is the most horrendous thing I’ve seen in my career. It was so bad that I couldn’t watch the entire video the first time. It rocked me to a point where I couldn’t believe someone would have the audacity to act that way with such a disregard for human life. It’s something I focus on with my rank and file: You don’t want to be that one officer on video doing something detrimental to the profession.

What changes have you made since that happened?

The one specific change is the intervention policy, which requires officers to act or attempt to stop another officer who is going outside our policy and using excessive force, or some other unlawful action. We’d been talking about this for some time, but the Floyd case expedited it. We’re still working on some things. There’s some education that has to take place on the use of force and decision-making by officers. But remember, some of these situations require quick reaction. We need better definitions of ‘necessary’ and ‘reasonable’ regarding use of force.

What was your approach to the protests in the county after Floyd’s death?

The first day we had protests was a Sunday, and we weren’t expecting it. I was watching what was happening in Germantown on Facebook Live. I told my staff to try to negotiate with the protesters so they could demonstrate without being totally disruptive. It was a start for us, and became a template for other protests so we could work with them. We had boundaries—there were some things we weren’t going to allow them to do. But we gave them their voice. We had over 90 protests without a single arrest, and I’m proud of that.

Tell me about a personal experience you had with protesters.

I was invited to speak at a protest in Gaithersburg, and while I was speaking there was one young man yelling at me. I stopped and acknowledged him and said, ‘You have a right to your opinion.’ And he kept talking. So I said, ‘And I love you, too, my brother.’ At that, he stopped. And I went on to tell the crowd that the department believes Black lives matter and we were trying to make our community safer for everyone. People were angry and upset, and COVID-19 added to it, so we needed to give them that space.

Do you have family and friends who support the Black Lives Matter movement?

Yes, and I have had really good conversations with them about BLM. I guess not so much about the movement itself as the issues at its core. It allows me to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not from a law enforcement perspective. But this is a conversation we’ve been having for a long time about policing in Black communities. I taught cultural diversity at our police academy for almost 10 years. When I talk to the rank and file, I talk about why African American communities feel the way they do about policing. And I give them the history of society using law enforcement as an oppressor. So when they say African Americans are more sensitive, the examples throughout history help them understand why.

Growing up, did your parents ever instruct you on how to act if you were stopped by police?

I was raised by my grandparents, and they always taught us about respect. And particularly if it was a law enforcement officer or a teacher—you were to give them respect. So I never got ‘the talk.’ I understood from family conversations that you weren’t going to win an argument with an officer on the street. As I got older and had more interaction with my father, it wasn’t about that talk, it was about not letting any situation get out of control, even if the officer is wrong.

What lessons did you give to your own son and two daughters?

I stressed to my son that law enforcement wasn’t always going to be fair to him, but that he should always show respect. As far as telling them what to do if stopped by police, I told them what they should do, stressing all the time that you’re never going to win an argument on the street—that’s not the time or place. And I gave them the basics of how to deal with law enforcement if they get stopped.

And did they experience any negative incidents?

My son has shared with me that he had positive interactions with law enforcement in college at Towson. But he’s been in other places outside Montgomery County where his interactions have not been positive. It allowed me to have a talk about life outside the college experience, and allowed him to have a clearer understanding of these situations.

What about other family members?

My wife, who grew up in Chicago, had some negative experiences with law enforcement. We got married at an early age, and when I told her I wanted to become a police officer, she really wasn’t accepting of that because of her negative experiences. What calmed her was knowing my father and brother were police officers. But we are not oblivious to the fact that there are negative experiences that people of color continue to have.

What kinds of reforms are you pursuing for the department?

When I came into office, one of the things I wanted to do was an external audit. The external audit should show what our department looks like internally, from an outside source, and to have [the auditors] engage with the community to get their feedback. Just looking at statistics is not enough. So I felt if there was a deeper dive, and the message was not coming from the department or myself, it gives us the opportunity to make adjustments. We’re still determining who will do the audit.

What’s your reaction to calls for de-funding the police?

I don’t know what people mean by that. What does that look like? I have a budget of $288 million, of which 80% goes for personnel and 20% for operational costs. When they say we’re defunding you because we don’t want you to respond to certain calls, well, that doesn’t eliminate the officer who has to do a burglary report, or take care of a shoplifter or a drunk driver or a car accident. If you take positions away from us, that only makes a low officer-to-citizen ratio even worse.

County Executive Marc Elrich wants a civilian assistant chief. Are you on board?

He wants the assistant chief to oversee our community engagement. I had no heartburn over it. I know it exists in other departments. I spoke with [former D.C. police Chief] Charles Ramsey, who had a civilian chief. We had an extensive discussion about how this could benefit the department. When you bring in someone outside the agency, it provides a different look or view that can assist in creating different approaches that are not from a law enforcement perspective.

What is the proposed mission of Elrich’s so-called task force?

The task force is supposed to be reimagining policing and coming up with suggestions for the [county] executive to make changes. For example, what we do, how we respond to calls, which calls should we respond to, should some calls be diverted to another county agency? I’m not sure what input, if any, we’ll have on the composition of the task force.

Do you have a wish list for the task force?

It’s been clear to me for a long time that we’ve been the recipient of society’s ills, particularly with regards to mental health. The health professionals are strapped to try and provide the services they need, so we are put on the front lines. There’s clear evidence that there are calls we respond to that aren’t police-related matters—there’s no harm to public safety. Though we are called to handle individuals who are going through a mental health crisis, there are others better equipped to do that.

If you had unilateral power to reform, how would you proceed?

At the top of my list are the mental health calls. We’ll never be totally out of the mental health business. There will be times, as health professionals will tell you, that we need a police presence. What I’d like to see is that it wouldn’t be solely the police, and that we would provide the support when needed. Whatever we do has to have a public safety connection. Another is the concept of community policing. I’ve talked to people who have completely different views. Some think it means that every neighborhood should have a cop walking a beat. But we have a mostly suburban footprint. I have 1,300 officers for 1.1 million residents, one of the poorest officer-to-civilian ratios in the country. So I don’t have an officer to put on every corner. So we have to be innovative in figuring out ways for officers to have more public engagement. I think community policing works best in highly populated areas and high-crime areas because it builds relationships and you can solve problems with residents on public safety issues. So Silver Spring, Wheaton, parts of Gaithersburg and Germantown are areas where we need to engage a lot more.

What about domestic disputes? Or traffic control?

I think we have to respond to domestic calls. Does every one involve violence? No. But they can, potentially. When someone wants someone else out of the house, we have to keep the peace. That’s part of our functionality. As far as traffic, we don’t think every time there’s a fender bender the police have to respond. The public thinks that the police officer has to be there for insurance claims. Not true. So we haven’t been responding if no one is hurt and a vehicle doesn’t need towing. If it causes a traffic backup, we’ll respond. If I had my druthers, I’d have a [dedicated] traffic control unit.

What’s department morale like right now?

Wow. As much as I’d like to say it’s OK, it’s not. There’s been a lot of events that have occurred in the past year that our officers have really struggled to understand their value to the community. There seems to have been a constant barrage of criticism, and their feeling is that the public overall doesn’t appreciate what they do.

Are they leaving the department?

Not at any greater rate than normal. That is a tough decision, to leave the profession. I’m not saying some folks haven’t made that decision, perhaps because this is not what they expected. But we haven’t seen any kind of mass exodus.

What are you doing to address the morale problem?

I’ve been working on a communications strategy to share with officers—really giving them updates, like town hall videos—and share with them the responses I get from the public or by email. A lot of it is support from what I call the silent majority who are not active on social media. This is another problem of the pandemic because we would do a lot of community engagement at different events. We can’t do that now.

Describe your relationship with the union, the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s been many years since we’ve had good relations with the union. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) gives some unique rights to members. For example, if I want to dismiss an officer, the CBA gives the officer a choice of a traditional hearing board or an alternative. The alternative board includes an arbitrator and, if they conclude that the officer did wrong but don’t recommend dismissal, that decision is binding. So I can suspend an officer without pay, but I can’t fire them—and that’s a challenge. There are some things in the agreement where they’ve taken away the power of the chief, who is accountable to the county. It’s sad, and in some way it’s a waste of our resources.

In 2015, 79% of your officers were white. Now that number is 75%. Are you happy with that figure?

From my point of view, as diverse as Montgomery County is, we should be working towards greater minority representation. I know there are factors that are affecting recruitment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should give up. We are aggressively trying to change this. One of the ways we are focused on is using grassroots—I’ve always had the philosophy that police should come from the community in which they serve. And one of the challenges is: How do we sell ourselves to our younger demographic? We brought back our cadet program from the 1970s. Cadets can start at age 18 in a part-time position at half pay and also go to college. We felt we could get them in the door—two years working with us—[and] that would give us the baseline to come to our department.

What other factors are working against you in recruiting?

We’re sort of up against the mountain because when you see what’s happening in the country today—it’s not positive. People have to ask themselves, ‘Who wants to become a police officer during these tumultuous times?’ We have to be able to see that there’s more rewards, and it’s a noble career. We have to deal with people coming home from [police] work every day, thinking, ‘Am I valued by the people I serve, by the people I work for?’ We get feedback from [candidates] who say, ‘I don’t want to be a police officer; everything you do is being nitpicked.’

How do you screen for applicants who may have racist views?

In recruiting, you try to get a feel in the early stages about what they want, what their expectations are and how they would fit into the county. Beyond the written exam, the process includes a background check and a psychological exam and takes six months. Do people come in with biases? Absolutely. We have to get them to recognize those biases. We’re not going to hire anyone with preconceived views. You’re not going to be well-equipped for this when you get here. I wasn’t. It was a great learning experience for me as a 21-year-old. Even today, I can’t know everything about every culture. The question I ask is: Are you willing to be open-minded, and learn and appreciate the diversity we have here?

Have you personally witnessed a fellow officer acting in a racist manner?

I would say that I have seen police officers in years past treating certain people differently, particularly people of color. I would not say myself I felt racism. The first Black officer hire in the county was in 1968. When I came on [in 1985], there were only 75 Black officers in the department. There was not total acceptance of Black officers by all the members of the department. Those were some challenging times; there was still institutional racism as far as preventing people from promotions and acceptance in certain positions.

Has officer recruitment become more of a challenge and, if so, why?

Beginning almost five years ago, we began seeing a drastic drop in applications. We routinely would get 1,000 applications annually, and all of a sudden it dropped to the 700s and even as low as the 400s. So why is this happening? First, we’re competing with many different law enforcement agencies, all trying to get the best talent. Second, our employees work days, nights, weekends and holidays. Who wants to do that? Officers used to jump at any opportunity to work overtime, now they want the time off. It’s a new generation, and how do we attract this generation?

What does the department need to do to regain the public’s trust?

The first thing is for all of us to take a pause; it’s been very emotional. Then it’s communication. People have to be willing, as the police are willing, to sit down and have a conversation and listen—really listen—and educate each other to have a better understanding. Over the past month or so, we’ve had conversations with community groups and groups formed by the [BLM] movement. We’ve learned a great deal, and I think the groups have learned a lot about law enforcement. To me, that’s the start. Relationship-building is what is needed for success. 

Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor, and the former bureau chief in Moscow and in Washington, D.C., for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.

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