The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a bill establishing a police advisory commission — part of an ongoing effort to address high-profile accusations of officer misconduct over the past two years.
The bill’s sponsor, Council Member Hans Riemer, acknowledged the task was difficult. The council spent nearly an hour on Tuesday amending a bill limited by state protections for police officers, curtailing the investigative power of outside groups or agencies.
Protections are so broad that Council President Sidney Katz said the new group can’t be called an “oversight” commission. The commission’s role is advisory, recommending best police practices and offering suggestions on new policies, programs, legislation and regulations.
“A typical civilian oversight commission reviews complaints about police work,” Riemer said on Tuesday. “… They also do not have a very strong track record. And what we learned as we investigated Maryland law and county law and our collective bargaining agreements is that a civilian oversight commission like that would have severe limitations in Montgomery County.”
Still, council members described the bill as “landmark” legislation to rebuild trust after a Montgomery County police officer shot and killed 41-year-old Robert White of Silver Spring in 2018. Riemer, the council president at the time, said he felt a personal responsibility to address the shooting and find solutions.
The Montgomery County Police Department and Howard County prosecutors later ruled that the shooting was justified.
Less than a year later, the department was widely criticized after a white officer used a racial slur to describe four black men outside a White Oak McDonald’s. The officer said during video footage of the call that she was using the same words the men used.
Three months later, another officer was criminally charged with second-degree assault and misconduct in office after kneeing a suspect in the head. The suspect was handcuffed and face down on the ground. The officer’s case is pending.
“This is the right bill at the right time,” said Council Member Will Jawando, who compared it to the council’s previous legislation on racial equity. “This is similarly an important landmark bill, and we should be happy we’re passing it. But the work ahead of us is great.”
The bill establishes a 13-person commission, with nine public members serving three-year terms. The county executive will appoint four voting members on the commission. The council will appoint nine.
The Montgomery County police chief and the president of the local police union — or a designee — would serve as non-voting members.
In addition to proposing new policies and programs, the group will advise the council on police matters. It will also provide information on best practices in law enforcement and must hold at least one forum a year to gather community input on policing matters.
The group is required to submit an annual support on its activities to the council and county executive. One amendment requires the county, including the police department, to respond to any commission requests for information within 90 days.
Public response to the bill was decidedly mixed in the months leading up to its passage.
Torrie Cook, the local police union president, said the commission would waste taxpayer dollars and fail to address underlying problems within the department. Some residents said civilians are unequipped to assess officers’ decisions, while other opponents argued that the bill would undermine officer morale by questioning their actions.
Several advocacy groups, including the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, supported the legislation. But some social justice advocates said it didn’t go far enough to monitor police behavior.
At a public hearing in July, one leader of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said she didn’t think the police union should be represented on the commission. But council members pushed back on Tuesday, arguing that the bill is meant to foster conversation between police representatives and the community.
“There are plenty of supporters of the police out there who feel like this was moved forward by a council that is somehow hostile to the police and driven by some kind of special interest agenda,” Council Member Tom Hucker said.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “there are community advocates whose first reaction to the bill as it was written was, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t have a representative from the police department or the police union.’ That is absolutely misguided, as well, because this bill is all about dialogue.”
Amendments to the bill largely reflected the split. The council’s Public Safety committee added a requirement that the county executive appoint one member age 25 or younger and another age 26 to 35. It was a direct response to community advocates who argued the commission should include younger representation.
Council Member Andrew Friedson also added an amendment on Tuesday that requires commission members to participate in the Citizen Academy. The 15-week program offers a crash course on the basic responsibilities of police officers, including lessons on firearm safety, forensic services and criminal law.
“I think it’s important as part of this,” Friedson said. “The goal is collaboration, not conflict, and I think everybody involved having the perspective of all sides is important.”
In one contentious amendment approved Tuesday, council members debated whether to individually appoint their own members to the commission, who would then require the full council’s approval.
The requirement was included in the original draft of the bill, but removed later. Jawando reintroduced it on Tuesday, arguing that individual council members could appoint a diverse array of residents from across county districts.
“I think it’s important in this context because we’re grappling with an issue that’s so contentious,” he said.
The amendment passed 6-3. But opponents, including Katz, Friedson, and Council Member Craig Rice, said it could cause council infighting over individual commission members.
It could also create a group where representatives are serving on behalf of individual council members instead of the community, Friedson argued.
“I’m concerned about unnecessarily politicizing this commission,” he said.
The issue would become particularly complicated if the council later approved a stipend for the group’s public members, as it did for a separate racial equity committee.
“I’m now picking someone individually for payment,” Friedson said. “Which changes the dynamic of how we do this. I never contemplated being set up to hire county commission members.”