What’s it like to handle an unruly suspect?
Arresting someone who doesn’t want to be arrested is not pretty. It’s pretty disturbing to watch. But it doesn’t mean the officer is doing anything wrong. If it’s a kid, if it’s a woman fighting male cops, it’s even worse. But we’re getting critiqued on social media for everything we do. They show part of the video and cops are roundly criticized for being brutal or using too much force. I will tell you, of all the arrests I’ve made and traffic stops and citations I’ve written, it wasn’t a personal thing for me. It was just me doing my job. Post-Ferguson, [it’s] been really tough in terms of people making sweeping criticisms against the police based on really awful things that have occurred [around] the country. I think people are painting police with a broad brush based on, really, the actions of a small number of cops across the country.
Can you give an example of a time when you’ve personally had to handle an unruly suspect?
I assisted with an arrest shortly after I got here 10, 11 years ago. I was off duty in the summertime, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I had my wife and two children in the car with me. I was driving by Fallsgrove shopping center in Rockville when I see two of my cops in a knock-down, drag-out fight in the middle of the road. I threw the car in park and told my wife, ‘Take the van.’ I jumped out and I ran up. I don’t know if these guys knew who I was or not. I had my badge out and I made the brilliant statement, ‘Hey, do you guys need help?’ They obviously did need help. This guy was down in the street, fighting violently.
This wasn’t a Rodney King situation where they were wailing away on him with a baton because the guy’s fighting. These guys were getting him under control in a controlled manner. But I can tell you, to every car that drove by, it looked awful. Sometimes that’s the way the job looks. When my wife drove by with the kids—my children were very young at the time—I think it was my son who looked out the window and said, ‘Mommy, what’s Daddy doing?’
What specific changes have you made in training policies since Ferguson?
Some of these changes started post-Ferguson, but a lot of the changes started for us around 2008, when we really overhauled our use-of-force policy. Like giving officers crisis intervention training, dealing with folks more effectively who have mental illness. Our cops have more tools in their tool belt right now to understand things to say to that person, things not to say, and better strategies on how to approach it. Over half of our police officers have gone through this crisis training, and it has really reduced the number of uses of force with folks with mental illness because we’re more effectively able to de-escalate those situations.
A post-Ferguson example I would give you is teaching our cops not to create that moment where deadly force is needed to be used. A good example is the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, where you have this little kid who appears to be waving a real gun. The cops who respond to this all drive right up close to the kid. My question would be: Why did the officer put himself in a position where he was in danger? Why did he have to get so close? What we’re teaching our officers is: Don’t put yourself in the situation where deadly force is the only choice you have. If you can put time and distance, slow things down, de-escalate it, that’s the approach you need to take.
Have there been times during your tenure when a cop went too far?
Absolutely. We’ve sustained excessive force complaints against officers on a number of occasions, but none of those involved deadly force. Since I’ve been chief here, we’ve used deadly force 39 times. I believe 13 of those cases involved somebody’s death. But we have had cases where an officer discharged a firearm that did not result in death, and we determined that the officer should not have discharged that firearm. We’ve had cases where officers have used force, whether it’s a baton or Taser or even just his hands, where force was deemed to be excessive. We don’t have a lot of these cases, but we do get complaints about brutality. We investigate every one.
What have you learned in your pilot program with police cameras?
That this is a good direction to go. I think it’s going to demonstrate to the public that my cops are doing the right thing the right way, day in and day out. These cameras are going to help us show the public how difficult and challenging a job these cops have. So often what you get on social media is the last couple minutes of an incident, but you miss the five minutes that led up to it. I’m hopeful that a year from now we’ll have 900 of these cameras out.
You still make a lot of traffic stops yourself. Do people recognize you?
Most of the time I think people think it’s some old cop who stopped them. I stopped one guy, he was doing like 25 miles over the speed limit. He had a big smile on his face and said, ‘You’re the chief, aren’t you?’ But it doesn’t happen that often. I’ll tell you what does happen. When I’m out with my family, at the grocery store, going to The Home Depot, people recognize me all the time. It’s really unique to Montgomery County. I’m not sure if it’s because Chief [Charles] Moose during the sniper case had such a high profile and people pay more attention to who the police chief is in Montgomery County. I gotta tell you, I was police chief in Fairfax for six years and a cop in Fairfax for 27 years and I can count on one hand the number of times anybody recognized me anywhere.
What are the differences between being chief in Fairfax and Montgomery counties?
The relationship between the county council and the executive is more adversarial here than it was in Fairfax. In Virginia, you didn’t have a union to negotiate with. Here, you have a very strong union and a strong collective bargaining law that we have to comply with. But there are a lot more similarities. You’ve got a very sophisticated public and a demanding public. They expect a high caliber of service from their government, including the police. I’m very proud of the professionalism both departments have.
How do you deal with the number of cultures and languages represented in Montgomery County?
We deal with it every day. The outreach that we do is relentless. But we are only as good as the last contact we had with the public. Montgomery County is too diverse to make any generalizations about our relationship with the public. Whether it’s the new immigrants who live here, whether it’s the African-American community, the Latino community, the Muslim community, we have to look at all the different segments of our community and ask ourselves: What is our relationship with that segment of our community?
For one-third of our population, English is their second language. We’ve gotta have cops who speak their languages. We’re building diversity up on our force. It’s not just about racial diversity. You want a diversity of faiths. You want a police department that’s reflective of the community we’re serving. In Montgomery County, that’s a tall order. When I got here, only about 3 percent of our police officers were Latino. I’ve been able to double that number, and I’ve added an additional 75 or 100 officers who speak Spanish. We’ve got a Spanish instructor at our police academy. We have officers who speak any language you can think of. It’s good that we’ve got the diversity we have, but we’ve got to continue paying attention to that. We’ve made great progress in terms of the diversity of our department, but we’ve still got a ways to go.
How can you prevent the sort of lone-wolf attack we saw in San Bernardino from happening here?
We work very closely with our federal partners. I’ve got officers who are on federal task forces, and we’re plugged into the intelligence community, both in Baltimore and D.C.
But I can tell you, the San Bernardino shooting reminded us that if you’ve got somebody who’s flying under the radar, who is a lone wolf, those are tough to prevent.
I think we’re at a point today where government agencies understand the importance of information sharing. I can tell you [that] 10, 15 years ago, it wasn’t what it is today. I’ve got folks plugged into task forces with federal agencies. That ensures that I’m kept abreast of what kinds of things are going on in this region and in Montgomery County. I think some people would be surprised at the number of cases that the federal government and the Montgomery County Police Department investigate that might have some nexus to terrorism or to organized crime, or just somebody with mental health issues who might be radicalized and may engage in criminal behavior—how many of these kinds of cases we are able to deal with either early on or stop before they get too far. These are the things that really keep me awake at night. It’s absolutely still possible for lone wolves to get involved in a mass shooting like in San Bernardino. That’s where you have to engage the public. If you see something, say something. People really need to take that to heart.
How many terrorist threats do you hear about in a year?
It’s not hundreds, but it’s more than a dozen. A lot of the threats that we hear about are vague. A lot of them are just information, and you look into it and it’s not as concerning as it might have been. But the D.C. region is clearly a high-valued target for a terrorist attack. I’m not saying it was someone who was here from ISIS, but we’ve had folks that were planning either shootings or some kind of attack and we’ve been able to intervene on a number of those cases. It’s not a large number, but even if it’s just five or six, that’s five or six times that you’ve gotten somebody the help they needed if you’re dealing with a mental health issue, or charged somebody with possession of bomb-making materials. You feel like, well, we caught this one. Let’s hope we catch the next one.
Can you give an example in which an officer intervened in a serious plot?
If you’re asking, have we locked up the terrorist who was getting ready to blow up a bomb in the White House or something, the answer would be no. But we’ve also had people who have had the intention of doing some pretty bad things. Who knows if we didn’t intervene as quickly as we did how far it [would] have gone? Would it have resulted in an incident where you have people who were killed or harmed or something more serious? We have had cases where we’ve intervened with people who are clearly in the process of being radicalized. We’ve served search warrants where we’ve recovered bomb-making materials. We’ve seized guns from people who by law weren’t allowed to possess them.
Are you seeing an increase in gang activity in Montgomery County?
We’ve seen an uptick, but I’m not sure if that’s a long-term trend. A lot of the times it’s just temporary. You’ve got a big influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America that have come to Montgomery County. A lot of these kids feel very isolated. At home, at school. So where does this kid turn? The gang will give him a home. The gang will make him feel protected.
Do you think marijuana should be legalized?
My feeling is decriminalization was a step in the right direction, but I think legalization is problematic. You know what? If you’re 50 years old and you wanna go home and get high after work, as long as you don’t go out and drive, who cares? But the fact is, there’s enough scientific evidence that shows that marijuana for anybody under the age of 22, it impacts your brain development. I really worry about the young folks. I think legalization sends the wrong message to them.
After officer Leotta’s death, you were outspoken about the need for tougher drunken driving laws. Will you be active in lobbying for new laws?
I plan to spend time in Annapolis. I’m going to be working with chiefs in Baltimore, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel [County]. We’re going to get chiefs and county executives and delegates from all over the state to ask to strengthen our drunk driving laws.
I think this whole community and the county executive and county council have all rallied around the tragic death of Officer Noah Leotta and are willing to help us strengthen drunk driving laws. I’m not talking about people who are first-time offenders. I’m talking about the people who have been arrested two, three, four times. We had a guy recently who was on his seventh drunk driving arrest. And do you know, the judge did not even sentence him to jail? Repeat offenders need to see the inside of a jail cell. This individual who [allegedly] struck and killed my officer has been arrested for drunk driving before. The maximum penalty for vehicular manslaughter is 10 years, and the recommended sentence for a first-time offender is two to four years. He’d likely do less than two. I gotta tell you, that doesn’t sound like justice to me.
You recently spoke at a gun control rally in Rockville. Do you support more gun control legislation?
What I support is anything we can do legislatively or otherwise that will reduce gun violence. When you start talking about gun control, that raises passion and emotion on all sides of the gun issue. I have no problem with the Second Amendment. What I do have a problem with is the number of people who are gunned down every year by firearms, the number of guns that are in the hands of criminals, the number of guns that find their way into the hands of people with mental illness. I have a problem with the fact that these guns are being used to commit crimes, and we have more and more people it seems being killed each year because of the easy availability of guns to just about anybody, anywhere, anytime.
I think there are some very common sense things that don’t restrict law-abiding citizens from having a firearm. Start off with universal background checks. I think most people will agree that makes good common sense. Every time we have some kind of gun crime in Montgomery County, we seize the gun. We seize upwards of 800 to 1,000 guns a year. We’re talking about two or three a day that my cops are taking off the street. We trace the gun back to who bought it, and the owner says, ‘Oh yeah, that gun was stolen from me a couple years ago.’ Or, ‘I lost that gun a while back.’ That’s their story. Why wouldn’t we want to have a law in place that requires every gun that’s lost or stolen to be reported to the police?
What has been the best moment in your career?
The day that the arrest was made in the D.C. sniper shooting. I was in Fairfax then. The relief everyone felt was just unbelievable. It was like a thousand pounds had been taken off my shoulders. I could finally breathe again without it hurting. I got home. I was exhausted and as elated as I had been in three weeks. My son had just learned to walk, and I grabbed him by the hand and went out our front door. I just walked a block down the street and a block back. I was out holding my son’s hand and I was safe walking him up and down. That was a moment I’ll never, ever forget. The freedom. Things are safe again. Life is back to normal. It was all coming together in that moment for me. As a dad, as a police chief, as a member of the public.
Restaurant: First Watch
Places to go with his kids: Bethesda Big Train baseball games, Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, Cheeburger Cheeburger
TV cop show: Does Dexter count?
Items on his nightstand: The remote for my DVR so I can watch Pardon the Interruption with my son right before we call it a night
David Frey (www.davidmfrey.com) lives in Gaithersburg and has written for Sunset magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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