A virtual forum to discuss racism and policing in Mount Rainier saw city officials – including the chief of police – discuss ways the town could rethink law enforcement or “defund the police”. The meeting is the latest example of how international outrage over systemic racism and policing, recently underscored by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, could translate into policy action at the local level.
During the meeting, held June 11, 2020, Mount Rainier City Councilor Scott Cecil outlined a list of policy proposals to defund the police by shifting funding and effort toward non-law-enforcement approaches to many of the social issues police are today called to resolve. Within the last two weeks of national discourse on the topic, where the defund-the-police policy movement has gained a national spotlight, Cecil’s proposal is notable for its specific attention to hyperlocal policing issues in Maryland and Prince George’s County.
“Let me be clear: Defund the police is a hashtag, it’s a chant, it’s a slogan,” said Cecil. “But that does not mean we should be dismissive of it by labeling it as simply a vacuous statement without substance, as some critics are trying to do.”
Cecil’s defund the police platform called for the re-allocation of resources away from law enforcement toward evidence-based social services, such as emergency crisis response, mental health support and overdose prevention. The next two points call for the city police department to stop taking part in the war on drugs and to stop policing quality of life issues related to homelessness, addictive substances and mental illness. The third plank called for Mount Rainier to establish a community review board for the police department. Currently, Mount Rainier’s collective bargaining agreement with the city police union prohibits citizen review of police personnel complaints. The fifth point called for Mount Rainier to pressure County legislators to re-allocate police resources. sixth point called for the city to similarly lobby state legislators to reform the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights.
During the meeting, Mount Rainier Chief of Police Anthony Morgan appeared open to many of these ideas. Morgan, himself African American, acknowledged racist behavior can be prevalent in some departments, and described experiencing discrimination and racist behavior by other officers when Morgan worked in Michigan.
Morgan liked the idea of non-police cirisis intervention teams, but he noted those teams will require funding and that it may hard for a small municipal police department to successfully pull off unilaterally.
“We don’t have the resources to do this 24-7 or to put a team together,” said Morgan.
But Morgan personally favors a much-more transparent approach to the thorny issue of police personnel records. He’s in favor of rules allowing disclosure of more-detailed information about police misconduct and officer histories. But he noted state law prohibits a broad range of employee personnel records from disclosure, and that police have even greater protections due to the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights.
Barring a change in state laws governing police records, Morgan said there are other ways the city can increase transparency into police operations. For instance, Morgan noted that every police department in Maryland is required to submit regular reports to state officials detailing demographic information on police stops, use of force incidents, and tabulations of internal affairs incidents and their outcomes. Because of the summary-level details of these reports, there’s no legal issue with sharing them.
“That’s something, I can be honest about, that we should be doing,” said Morgan. “We would just need to create a mechanism and worth through how we could get that done. But that’s something we could work on.”
Like Hyattsville, the killing of Leonard Shand, a 2019 fatal police shooting involving one Mount Rainier, three Prince George’s County, and six Hyattsville police officers, also hovers over Mount Rainier. Cecil criticized Hyattsville for blocking the release of body camera footage from its officers on the scene of Leonard Shand’s fatal 2019 police shooting.
“They’re not engaging in the proper civilian oversight of their law enforcement agency,” said Cecil. “They’re saying they can’t release the body camera footage until the County completes this investigation. Not only is that not correct, it’s not transparent, and I hope that folks in Mount Rainier will make some noise about this.”
“Right now my hands are tied. I can’t even talk about it in public because it risks, opening the city up to liability. We need access to that camera footage and there should be laws in place to make sure that we do.”
Cecil’s mention of Hyattsville’s refusal to share its officers body camera footage with Mount Rainier officials prompted calls during the meeting for the town to end mutual aid agreements that require its officers to respond to incidents in Hyattsville.
“If Hyattsville can’t be reciprocal, I just don’t see the point in us assisting them,” said Mount Rainier resident Lisa Alfred during the meeting.
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