Opinion: Montgomery County Needs State Use of Force Law for Police

WTOP News photo.

Police in Montgomery County have killed one of our neighbors, again.

Less than one month after Gaithersburg City Police officers chased down and killed Kwamena Ocran, and nine months since Montgomery County Police killed Finan Berhe, who was in the throes of a mental health crisis, a Sheriff’s deputy has killed Kevin Costlow, a man who was
also in crisis and was wielding a tree branch when he was shot and killed.

These killings are deplorable and demonstrate the need for change at both the state and local levels in three areas.

First, these killings were committed by officers from three of the many different law enforcement agencies operating in Montgomery County under a range of different governing authorities.

This is why we support the statewide use of force standard in Maryland, House Bill 139 and Senate Bill 626.

In every law enforcement agency in Montgomery County and throughout Maryland, the law must require officers to de-escalate before using force, and to use deadly force only when necessary as a last resort. Maryland is one of a small number of states with no statewide standard for the use of force and it must act to adopt one now.

Second, the evidence is overwhelming that we must provide people in crisis with professional mental health support rather than a police response. Since the police killing of Robert White in Silver Spring in 2018, we have advocated for a program like Denver’s that has successfully responded to hundreds of calls with trained social workers, calls that would once have elicited police response. The continued killing of our neighbors in crisis reveals that the county must move forward now to remove mental health from the purview of police; we cannot wait any longer.

Third, County Executive Marc Elrich must tell us how and when he will implement the recommendations of his Taskforce on Reimagining Public Safety. The Taskforce recommends mental health alternatives and Crisis Intervention Training for all officers. In addition, it
recommends the county study whether law enforcement officers need to carry guns at all times and that officers report every time they draw their firearm. This year’s killings illustrate why this is necessary.

County leadership must also implement the task force’s recommendations to reduce the overall size and footprint of our police force. This includes reducing the number of patrol officers in certain districts, moving traffic enforcement to automated systems, ending MCPD’s practice of banning people from retail establishments, and decriminalizing minor offenses. The report further recommends terminating the School Resource Officer Program and removing the money for that program from MCPD’s budget and allocating it to non law-enforcement student supports.

These ideas are not pipe dreams; they are pragmatic reforms. Just 4% of Montgomery County Police time is spent on violent crime, and only 35% of their time is spent on all crimes. On the other hand, 65% of police time in this county is spent on traffic enforcement, non-criminal calls for mental health and other assistance, and self-promoting
“community policing” activities. We can easily pay for proactive resources to help people in crisis — as well as prevent future killings — if we divest the police department of the funds it receives to do work it should not do.

We have not gone a single year without police killing a county resident since 2017, and 2021 is off to a terrible start. While Kevin Costlow was white, these murders have
disproportionately been of Black residents. We mourn the loss of yet another life and demand our county and state officials act now to stop our government from killing our neighbors.

— DANIELLE BLOCKER, CARLEAN PONDER, JOANNA SILVER AND KATIE STAUSS

Danielle Blocker is the executive director of Young People for Progress; Carlean Ponder is a member of the Montgomery County Chapter of the ACLU of Maryland; Joanna Silver is a member of Jews United for Justice; and Katie Stauss is a member of Takoma Park Mobilization.
The authors represent these organizations in the Silver Spring Justice Coalition and the Montgomery County Defund/Invest Coalition, and served on the Montgomery County Executive’s Taskforce on Reimagining Public Safety.