Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando says he was racially profiled when he was stopped by a state police trooper in White Oak for a minor traffic infraction on Saturday.
Jawando, who is black and has raised concerns about police treatment of minorities since being elected to the council, said he was on his way to the gym about 6:30 a.m. when he was pulled over by the trooper and told he “stopped on the stop line at the last [traffic] light.”
Jawando posted a picture of himself on social media showing the police cruiser with its emergency lights flashing behind him while he sat in the driver’s seat of his Lexus.
In a Monday interview, Jawando said that he believes it was a “pretextual stop,” in which officers deliberately pull over a driver for a minor traffic violation to then look into the driver’s background for criminal offenses.
Maryland State Police provided a different explanation.
A police spokesman said Jawando began to edge into the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Cresthaven Drive at a red light and he was pulled over by Trooper Wen Shu, assigned to the state police Rockville barracks.
“The trooper initiated the traffic stop simply because of the violation he observed. This was not a pretextual stop. The vehicle had passed and stopped in front of him. He did not know the race or sex of the driver before stopping the vehicle,” according to spokesman Greg Shipley.
“The driver, Mr. Jawando, explained he had lost his current driver’s license and had requested a duplicate. He gave the trooper his expired driver’s license. While he was looking for his registration card, Trooper Shu asked Mr. Jawando if that was his vehicle. Trooper Shu asks this question regularly during traffic stops to help him determine if the person has a right to use the vehicle. During their conversation, Mr. Jawando told the trooper he was a Montgomery County councilman,” Shipley wrote in an email.
Shipley said state police policy forbids “bias-based policing” on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation disability or religion.
Since taking office in December, Jawando successfully sponsored a bill that will require an outside agency to perform an independent investigation for any shooting by a Montgomery County officer and just last week he co-hosted a town hall to hear from the community about the qualities they hope to see reflected in the next police chief. Some of the minority residents at the forum shared stories of being stopped by the police for minor traffic violations.
Jawando added that it was not the first such experience he has had with the police.
“These stops are used disproportionately against African Americans and people of color and are ripe for racial profiling. Fortunately, I resorted to my ‘training’ honed over years of similar stops. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what happens to the young man or women who’s not a lawyer or a county councilmember, hasn’t honed their training on how to survive a stop, has an outstanding traffic ticket or bench warrant they don’t know about and how this situation could have escalated,” he wrote on Twitter.
Jawando, 36, said he was asked by the officer whether he had prior traffic violations, to which he answered, “no,” and then handed his license and registration to the officer and told him he was a County Council member. The trooper issued a warning and then told him to “have a nice day,” Jawando said.
Jawando said he has been stopped “dozens” of times by the police, to the point that he is “desensitized to it.”
“It was a tense situation, but one that I’ve dealt with before,” he said.
Jawando, who formerly served as an aide in President Barack Obama’s administration, said it is possible that the police became suspicious when they saw a black man driving a luxury vehicle.
“The type of car factors in. The fact that he asked me if it was my car. There’s no reason that should be the first question you ask,” he said.
Saturday’s incident occurred just a couple blocks from a McDonald’s restaurant where a white Montgomery County police officer used the n-word when questioning four young black men accused of loitering.
Calls for police reform have ramped up in response to that incident, and the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Silver Spring last year.
Jawando’s encounter with the police conjures up memories of former County Executive Isiah Leggett’s run-in with law enforcement on the night before the general election in 2014. Leggett, who was running for his third term, was placing a campaign sign near the Good Hope Community Center in Silver Spring when a Park Police officer approached him and began “yelling and screaming and cursing about why am I there and that I had no right to be there…in such a harsh, negative unprofessional tone that I was literally stunned for a minute or two,” according to the former county executive.
Leggett said a female police officer then approached them and apologized for her colleague, saying that he simply made a mistake because he was from Howard County. The former county executive, who is black, said he had also been profiled by an officer many years before as a County Council member.
Jawando said he doesn’t plan to ask for an investigation into the matter, but wants people to know that his incident is “not an isolated occurrence.” He said he decided to go public with his story to raise awareness of the issue. Since posting on Saturday, he has received more than 100 comments on Facebook, including both messages of sympathy, and from others who had similar experiences with the police.
“You’re seeing that people are sharing their stories, much like mine… If we’re going to solve this and change the culture, we need to know [what’s happening],” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org