Residents and members of the Montgomery County Police Department stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the back and along the side of the large room at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown on Wednesday night, for an open and frank discussion of police and race relations in Montgomery County.
The meeting was the second meeting held in the County in response to police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, and the ambush killings of police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge and other locations in the country. The meeting was organized by Montgomery County Officer of Human Rights, with participation from Montgomery County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Faith Community Working Group, and the Police Department, with the full support of the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission, the Committee on Hate Violence and the Black Minister’s Conference.
The event was the second Town Hall meeting on the topic; the first took place the night before in Silver Spring with more than 300 people in attendance.
“We are here tonight to make sure that we hear from our community about your concerns, about fears or other expressions that we have a chance to hear that first-hand from you in authentic voices,” James L. Stowe, Director of the Office of Human Rights, told the more than 400 people at the Germantown event.
The racially diverse audience heard County Executive Ike Leggett begin the evening with two diametrically opposed stories about police interaction. One was a story of an elderly gentleman he encountered lost and wandering around the County Administrative building in Rockville and the police officer who went above and beyond to make sure the gentleman found his car and returned home safely. The other of an officer who began yelling at screaming unknowingly at the County Executive for being on school property while he was placing election signs.
“In the first instance,” said Leggett, “the dedication, the commitment, and compassion which that officer displayed is what I believe the overwhelming mass numbers of police officer display, both here in Montgomery County and around the country. These are people who have our safety at heart. We have some of the best police officers in the country.”
“For forty to fifty years you have heard people of color saying that feel that they have been and are being treated differently on the street,” said Leggett. “You have heard that from African Americans who are old, who are young, who are conservatives, who are progressives, who are Democrats, who are Republicans – they are all saying the same thing. African-Americans do not all agree on the same thing. Most could not go outside and agree that it is raining or sunny, but the fact that for forty-years people across the entire spectrum are saying the same thing about police interaction. They can’t all be wrong. You have to give some legitimacy to that fear.”
“We need to have this dialogue because, on one hand,” said Leggett, “there are far too many people that do not see the experienced, dedicated, police officer who is there to help them. And there are far too many officers who do not see that the person that they have stopped may be intimidated and feel discriminated against.”
Stowe, the event’s moderator, asked if Montgomery County was ready to deal with a tragedy on the scale of what had happened in Baton Rouge, or Minnesota, or Ferguson?
Police Chief Thomas Manger responded that the County was better prepared than many in the country. “To the extent that the residents of this County have trust and confidence in their police department, we are better prepared for something like that happening.”
The chief used the hypothetical examples of when there is a series of break-ins in the Darnestown area, for example, the community will meet with the police and be very cooperative to stop that activity. He also said that if there is a gang-related murder along the Piney Branch Corridor, police do not get very much cooperation.
“There are some segments of our community that do have trust and confidence in the police, and there are other segments of the community where we have a lot of work to do to increase their trust and confidence in the police department,” said Manger.
He said that as police chief, he has three main responsibilities; hiring the right people, invest in their training, and hold employees accountable. “When I think about the hiring practices of police departments when I started as a police officer 40 years ago compared to our hiring practices today, we are doing such a better job at screening people and giving psychological tests to screen the type of people that we want and screen out the ones that we don’t want. But, it is not an exact science. We are still recruiting from the human race; nobody is perfect.”
He said the Montgomery County Police Officers receive 29 weeks of training at the Police Academy prior to starting on the job, and additional training every year. “We give them training on how to de-escalate a volatile situation,” said Manger. “We give them training on how to deal with folks with mental illness. We give them the training to deal with the bias that every single one of us has inside of them. We train them so that we can recognize it and make sure it is not impacting the way they are doing their jobs.”
“After 40 years of being a cop,” said Manger, “I can tell you what I believe that the public wants – they want to believe that their police department and their police officers are well-intentioned. That the things we do, we are doing for the right reasons. That we act lawfully, fairly, and we treat people with respect.”
Linda Plummer, President of the Montgomery County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the crowd, “I do believe that we have some officers that need to be more trained and more sensitive, especially when dealing with our young kids. Our black and brown kids in Montgomery County feel that they are treated disparately different. We want to come together as a group and realize that we have a problem. We want to make sure that these atrocious issues that have happened around our nation do not come to Montgomery County.”
The County instituted the police body-worn camera program last year as a pilot program and has expanded it this year. Manger said that currently 815 MCPD officers were using the body-worn cameras and by the end of the summer 100 percent of patrol officers will be using the video cameras to record their daily interactions with the public.
Manger said that police department publishes an annual Use of Force Report which breaks down the MCPD’s use of force, in terms of what kind of force was used, who it was used on, broken out by age and race, and where it was used in the County.
“We do have deadly force incidents in this County,” said Manger. “In the 12 years, I have been police chief, Montgomery County Police Officers have used deadly force 40 times, however, only 13 of those times has resulted in a fatality.” He said in every fatal case, the suspect was armed either with a gun, or a knife or in one case an ice pick.
“However, we could have another shooting tomorrow,” said Manger. “My question is, are we ready for that? To the extent that we can, as the police department, we are trying instill trust and confidence that we are going to do the right thing.”
As the floor was opened to questions from residents, it soon became clear that while some in the community feel that police department are doing a better than average job of maintaining good relations with the African-American community, many in the room felt that more needed to be done.
One man asked about the racial makeup of the MCPD, saying that the first time he’d seen a black police officer in all his time in Montgomery County was at the meeting. Chief Manger responded saying the question was a good one. “The best police departments in this country reflect the diversity of the community they serve. Here in Montgomery County, we are going to be playing catch-up forever, to match the diversity we see here. When you look at the number of African-American officers, Latino officers, we have Muslim officers; we have a higher percentage of female officers than many departments. I would give us a B, maybe a B-minus. We are constantly improving,” said Manger.
Another attendee said that he would give the police department a failing grade when it came to race relations. “I lived in Montgomery County all of my life, and I would give the Montgomery County police an F. I have been threatened several different times by Montgomery County officers that they were going to take my life. I have had Montgomery County police officers ruin my life.” He said that he was a trash truck driver, and he was stopped and ripped out of his truck and beaten by Montgomery County Police officers. “They told me that I was a piece of trash. He said officers beat him and threatened to put a knife in his mouth and scrape his mouth. “I am here to speak out, not just the people that died but for the people whose lives get ruined by police officers who lie and bring false charges.”
Byron Johns, the education chair of the NAACP for Montgomery County said that there exists a “toxic and pernicious culture of almost predatory policing practices in some areas.” He said he gets phone calls every week from parents asking for help dealing with young people and their interaction with police officers. “I am concerned that officers are rated and incentivized based on the way the police department measures productivity is by how many interactions they have with the public and those interactions are most often with the most vulnerable people.”
Johns said, “It is a problem in this county when we are more worried about our children interacting with the police than we are of our children being victims of criminal activity.” John also asked if Montgomery County had implemented all or part of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Recommendations.
Captain Mark Plazinski, Director of the MCPD Training Academy, responded saying that the training academy took three months to go through the police department’s policies and practices. He said that MCPD was already doing most of the recommendations from President’s task force prior to the release of the report. He said that there were a number of changes which were made to bring MCPD further into line with the recommendations of the report. Chief Manger said, “We have adopted pretty much everything in that report.”
One woman, who said she was a former prosecutor in other jurisdictions asked if the Montgomery County State’s Attorney was invited to attend the Police/Race Relations meetings. “As a former prosecutor, in three other jurisdictions, I know that the police, prosecutor, and judges are all in bed together. One can’t perform without the other, and there for a lot of the inequities are not just systematic, but require criminal justice reform overall.”
Fifteen-year-old Simone Ashley said she believed that the police department should receive a grade C, asked what procedures were in place when officers were found guilty of wrongdoing, and how that MCPD was letting the public know about the penalties handed out to those officers.
“When we have officers charged with crimes,” said Manger, “The charge is public information, is available to news outlets. We also have officers that we have taken disciplinary action against because of wrongdoing on the job. Over the course of the 12-years that I have been chief, there have been many officers that have had their employment terminated. There are other officers that have made mistakes, in which cases disciplinary action was taken but they retain their job.”
“Those are more problematic,” said Manger, “because Maryland State law says that it is a personnel action, and I cannot disclose the type of disciplinary action taken against an employee. All I can tell the public is that the officer was found guilty of wrongdoing and appropriate discipline area action was taken. And I know that if you are the person that made the complaint against that officer, it is not very satisfying to hear that, but that is what the law requires.”
A number of people, including a few Germantown residents, brought up individual, personal complaints about the police department ranging from a SWAT team that came to their home and roused the family out of bed because the father matched the description of someone who had committed a crime, to an elderly woman who said that she was being harassed and threatened by members of her community because she calls the police to deal with crime in her neighborhood and the police were not responding to her repeated calls for protection in her neighborhood. Both of these folks were directed to the commander of their local police district to have their cases tended to on a personal basis.
It was Councilmember Craig Rice, who represents Germantown and the UpCounty, who gave perhaps the most passionate response of the night when he said, “I am saddened because I am hearing these stories for the first time. I am the only African-American member of the County Council, and I represent this district, and I haven’t heard from anyone of you about these issues. And these issues are important to me,” said Rice.
“I hear you,” said Rice, “But I need to hear from you. If I am going to help make a difference in our community, these stories can’t just come at these Town Hall meetings. You have to open up. For me to be representative government, I need to hear the stories from each and every one of you all the time. You should be burning up my phone.” Rice continued, “Call my office. I may not be able to solve every single problem. I will talk to you and try my best. You have to get us engaged. You can’t just walk away and say, ‘Screw the system. The system is going to get over on me.’ That is not what I am about; that is not what I believe. That is not what any of us in leadership believes.”
Top: Rev. Mansfield “Kasey” Kaseman the Montgomery County Interfaith Community Liaison addresses a jam-pack house at BlackRock Center for the Arts at Wednesday’s Town Hall Meeting on Race-Police Relations.
Next: County Executive Ike Leggett spoke about the importance of having a community dialogue.
Next: Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger spoke about his department and use of force.
Next: Linda Plummer, president of the NAACP of Montgomery County.
Next: MCPD Use of Force Incidents by District for 2014 and 2015, according to the MCPD Use of Force Annual Report, published in April 2016.
Next: Arrests by race per police district, according to the MCPD Use of Force Annual Report, published in April 2016.
Next: James Stowe with Byron Johns, the NAACP education chairman, said that he gets phone calls every week from parents of African-American parents asking for help on how to handle their children’s interactions with the police.
Next: Fifteen-year-old Simone Ashley said she believed that the police department should receive a grade C for race relations, and asked how penalties and punishments for officers found guilty of misdeeds were pass along to the public.
Next: Councilmember Craig Rice from District-2 in Germantown, spoke about the need for individuals to let community leaders, like himself, know about incidents between police and the public which require attention.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.