Community members and leaders voiced concern over a proposed bill in the Montgomery County Council that would restructure how the county oversees police reform and public safety during a council meeting on Tuesday.
Expedited Bill 27-23, co-sponsored by council members Dawn Luedtke (D-Dist. 7) and Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3), seeks to repeal the county’s existing Policing Advisory Commission (PAC) to clarify the work of police accountability in the county. This is because the county will instate a state-mandated Police Accountability Board (PAB) in July.
Luedtke said this is an opportunity to make sure that work is effective and streamlined as the county works to prevent racial profiling and police brutality.
At a public hearing Tuesday during the County Council meeting, some speakers voiced concern about repealing the existing commission.
“We are highly committed volunteers. We don’t cost the county any money to spend hours in addition to our meetings on community outreach, research and writing. We bring a broad range of backgrounds,” said Eric Sterling, chair of the commission.
Sterling argued that the commission should remain so it can continue its existing and ongoing work. For example, Sterling said the commission has been working on examining procedures for police department review of video from body-worn cameras, which he said has led the Montgomery County Police Department to look into rewriting their policies.
A bill establishing the commission passed in December 2019 and went into effect in March 2020. Because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, members weren’t appointed until July 2020. Those members’ terms are set to expire on July 31.
By July 1 each year, the commission must submit to the County Executive and the council an annual report on its functions, activities, accomplishments, plans and objectives. However, the PAC did not submit a report in 2022. The PAC most recently submitted a report in 2021.
In April 2021, the Maryland General Assembly amended the Maryland Public Safety Article to require each county to have a police accountability board. The county passed a resolution in May 2022 in accordance with state law to establish the board. Members of the Police Accountability Board were appointed on June 28, 2022 to terms that would start on July 1, 2023. The board is fully staffed with an executive director.
The board’s role is to advise the council and county executive on police accountability issues, which is the current role of the commission. The commission was created to advise the council and is appointed by the council. The state-mandated board is appointed primarily by the county executive and will receive complaints from the public about police misconduct.
“We’re trying to educate the public on this, but it’s very confusing because there is some overlap between the old county PAC that I’m trying to sunset and the new PAB, which are supposed to advise the council and the executive on concerns or things that are surfacing,” Luedtke told MoCo360 last month.
Cherri Branson, vice president of the Montgomery County NAACP, voiced concern that eliminating the board would take away opportunities to involve the community in police reform.
“This [commission] is the culmination of a long and arduous effort to provide civilians a voice in law enforcement practices,” Branson said. “This council acted [to create the commission] because it understood that the community, especially racial minorities and other marginalized people, who are often targeted by law enforcement should have a place to present their concerns without fear. That need has not disappeared.”
Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At-large) urged her fellow councilmembers to withdraw or oppose the bill.
“I oppose this emergency legislation and stress that the Police Accountability Commission is responsible for police oversight measures. Passing this emergency legislation will signal to the community and our community volunteers that public safety is no longer an issue,” Sayles said. “We are signaling to our community that transparency and accountability should be addressed in a vacuum and the community has no place in shaping public safety, so effectively oversee the dire need for community policing in our community. This would remove a way for the council to get more input on the ground on effective police methods.”
One speaker voiced support for repealing the PAC.
“The average resident couldn’t tell you what each of those commissions, boards and committees does,” said Esther Wells, a county resident and president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. “We need to consolidate, streamline and eliminate redundancies which will free up council staff time and improve service to the community.”
A Public Safety Committee work session focused on the bill is scheduled for June 26.
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