Over the past few years, we’ve watched too many videos and heard too many news reports from across the country about police brutality and shootings that have led to the deaths of unarmed women, men and children of color.
Because Montgomery County is considered the most progressive county in Maryland, it may have been easy for those of us who live here to mournfully shake our heads at these incidents while giving a sigh of thanks that they weren’t happening here. But as the last 18 months have shown, police shootings and misconduct are just as likely to happen here as anywhere else — it’s just that now, we’re finally noticing.
For many of us, the wake-up call was the killing of Robert White, a Silver Spring resident who was shot by a Montgomery County Police officer in June 2018 while simply walking around his own neighborhood.
This shooting was later deemed justified by the Howard County state’s attorney and by the Montgomery County Police Department’s own internal investigation. But this wasn’t the first time MCPD shot a black man under questionable circumstances.
In February 2011, an officer shot and killed Emmanuel Okutuga, a county resident and a student at Bowie State University, at City Place Mall in Silver Spring. MCPD claimed that Mr. Okutuga was threatening a mall security guard with a deadly weapon. Despite the fact that the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office “mistakenly erased” video footage of the shooting, a Montgomery County judge ruled that case a justifiable homicide as well.
And since Mr. White’s killing, a string of further incidents has highlighted the kind of treatment many people of color in Montgomery County fear from police. In May of this year, an MCPD officer was caught on her body camera using a racial slur while arresting four young black men for standing outside a McDonald’s in White Oak. In July, an MCPD officer brutally kneed a young Latino man in the head during an arrest at Aspen Hill Shopping Center. Additionally, County Councilman Will Jawando shared via social media his own experience of being racially profiled by a Maryland State Police trooper during a pretextual stop in June.
All of these incidents point to a serious need for police accountability in Montgomery County and in Maryland, as well as across the country.
In June 2019, Councilman Hans Riemer introduced Bill 14-19, which would create a Policing Advisory Commission that would recommend changes in police policy to the Montgomery County Council. Community advocates have been actively engaging with Councilman Riemer and the bill’s co-sponsors (Councilmen Jawando, Tom Hucker and Evan Glass) to talk about how the bill can be strengthened to improve community representation and accountability.
After more than four months of discussions, meetings and work sessions, the county council is expected to vote on the bill in the coming weeks.
While the bill does not create the kind of citizen review board that we as community advocates ultimately hope to see, we believe it is a positive step forward in the fight for real police accountability. The Policing Advisory Commission can recommend not only changes in county policing policy, but also changes in state-level policy — like the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and the Maryland Public Information Act — that county officials and the county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly can fight for in order to build effective mechanisms that keep the police accountable to community members.
But we believe that, in order for the Policing Advisory Commission to do its job well, it has to have representatives from the groups most impacted by policing activity — in particular, young people.
Sixty percent of those arrested by MCPD are young people ages 18 to 35. Of the incidents we recounted earlier, three of the five involve young adults: Emmanuel Okutuga was 26 when he was killed, and the young men arrested in White Oak and Aspen Hill were all in their late teens and early 20s. Even Councilman Jawando and Robert White fall only slightly outside of this category; Mr. Jawando is 37, and Mr. White was 41 when he was killed. And the likelihood of experiencing racial profiling or use of excessive force is much higher if you are a young person of color.
For instance, while black people make up only 19% of Montgomery County’s population, they account for 55% of cases involving racial profiling or excessive force.
Young people — especially young black and brown people — are the most likely to have interactions with the police in Montgomery County. Therefore, they need to be at the table for any discussion of how to improve policing policy.
From climate change to education to gun safety, we are seeing young people step up and demand a voice on the issues that affect their lives.
Here in Montgomery County, young people are creating groups like MoCo Students for Change and Young People for Progress to organize and be heard in our public policy decisions. Young People for Progress is leading the call for an amendment to Bill 14-19 that would set aside two seats on the Policing Advisory Commission for young people: one seat for a young person younger than 35, and another for a young person under the age of 25. This amendment would ensure that young people’s representation is built into the structure of the Policing Advisory Commission from the start. And as an added benefit, this amendment would help to address the underrepresentation of young people across all county boards and commissions.
We believe that the people closest to a problem have knowledge and experience that is essential in the development of effective solutions. We need the knowledge and experience of young Montgomery County residents in order to understand how policing policy must be changed to respect and protect all residents.
Young people are standing up to take their rightful place in decision-making within our community. It’s time to #LetThemLead.
— BRANDY H.M. BROOKS AND ROBERT STUBBLEFIELD
The writers are, respectively, an organizer, trainer, consultant and former candidate for Montgomery County Council at-large; and an organizer and activist with Young People for Progress and Showing Up for Racial Justice, Montgomery County.
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