Council introduces bills on police transparency, training

Published by the Washington Post

Montgomery County lawmakers on Tuesday introduced three bills to strengthen police accountability and expand training for officers, the latest step in an ambitious effort to overhaul policing in the suburb of 1 million people.

Spearheaded by liberal members of the all-Democrat county council, the bills come amid a wave of policing changes in the Washington region and a week before the one-year mark since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd’s death sparked dozens of protests in diverse, liberal Montgomery, where issues of racial justice have grown in prominence in recent years.

One of the proposals, sponsored by Council President Tom Hucker (District 5), calls for the police department to increase oversight of and access to footage from body-worn cameras of officers out on duty.

Another, sponsored by council member Will Jawando (At Large), would require incoming police recruits to attend a 30-hour education program on racial equity and other topics before being admitted to the police academy.

The third, co-led by Hucker and Jawando, would mandate that the county attorney regularly report settlement agreements made between the county government — including the police department — and members of the public.

The council also is considering at least three other bills related to policing, including legislation to boost civilian oversight of police discipline. Lawmakers voted unanimously last year to increase funding for civilian mobile crisis teams meant to divert individuals away from the criminal justice system, and recently decided with County Executive Marc Elrich (D) to remove armed officers from public schools.

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Hucker’s body-camera bill comes after Montgomery officers were seen on video loudly berating and handcuffing a 5-year-old boy who had wandered away from school. The incident, which happened in January 2020, became public a year later only when lawyers for the boy and his mother announced that they were suing the county. The footage was released in March.

Hucker said he has been frustrated and embarrassed by how long it took for county officials to understand what had happened during the incident. His bill, he said, strives to “close the loopholes” in the county’s body-worn camera policy by requiring internal investigators to do random checks of recordings and to review footage whenever certain types of officer conduct are being investigated, including when officers use force against civilians. In addition, the chief of police should be briefed monthly on these investigations, the bill proposes, and elected officials should promptly receive copies of body-camera footage if they request it.

“There’s an unfortunate lack of oversight and transparency over our body-worn-camera footage,” Hucker said.

Jawando said the bill asking for regular reports on the county’s financial settlements with residents is also designed to monitor potential instances of misconduct by police and other county employees. Such settlements are not publicly disclosed unless requested by individuals through the Maryland Public Information Act.

Council members Nancy Navarro (District 4), Hans Riemer (At-Large), Evan Glass (At-Large) and Craig Rice (District 2) asked during the council session to be added as co-sponsors of this bill.

Jawando said he worked on drafting the Community Informed Police Training Act with leaders at Montgomery College. Incoming police recruits in Montgomery now go through 24 weeks of training at the academy, which is about the same as the national average. Experts have noted, however, that officers in the United States undergo far less training, on average, than officers in other wealthy, industrialized countries.

The bill calls for an additional 30-hour, five-week training program that covers “areas not traditionally covered in depth by law enforcement agencies,” such as the history of policing, social justice and communication skills, he wrote in a memo to colleagues. Performance in the course would be used to evaluate recruits.

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“Is training the panacea? Absolutely not. . . . But it’s an important piece of this,” Jawando said at a news conference before introducing the bill.

He added that if passed, the bill could help attract recruits who may not previously have considered policing as a career path. Police Chief Marcus Jones and police union leaders have in recent months reported that the county’s overhaul efforts have left rank-and-file members of the department feeling demoralized.

“If you’re a young person today and you see that your department, your county, is taking the lead in trying to be part of the reimagining police’ conversation . . . that’s going to open up a whole different crowd,” Jawando said. Montgomery College, he noted, has a criminal justice course with 600 students enrolled; more than half of the college’s student population is Black or Latino.

Public hearings for all three bills are scheduled for June 22.