Racial Equity & Policing

Black Lives Matter march - June 2020

On Racial Equity

I’ve always seen Gaithersburg as a great place for people of all backgrounds to make a home, build a career, make friends, raise well-educated children, and enjoy the embrace of a remarkably welcoming community.

At the same time, a number of well-publicized incidents throughout the country have compelled the Council and me, from time to time, to go beyond our long-standing commitment to the Character Counts pillars and specifically reiterate our strong, shared belief in diversity and inclusion, equity, and fairness. In the last two years, we’ve taken concrete steps and become much more intentional on these matters, and moving toward formalizing a Racial Equity Awareness & Action Plan in the City of Gaithersburg.

What does this all mean?

It means that, as a City, we are essentially taking a fresh-eyed look at everything we do –  who we serve, who we hire, who we work with, our city culture, our city policies, etc – and taking inventory of how well we are serving and fostering opportunity for everyone in our diverse community.

I am proud of values our staff, our Council, and I share. And I’m proud of our collective record over the years of standing up to support, embrace, and celebrate everyone in our beautifully diverse community. As long as I’m Mayor, that’s the way I will continue to lead us.

On Community Policing

Some of the same well-publicized incidents over the last 7 years that have inspired us to be more intentional and formal on racial equity have also caused us to reevaluate how our police officers are interacting with the community.

Now, let me first say that policing can be incredibly difficult. It can require split second psychological decisions – life-or-death decisions – under extreme duress. It can require a level of poise and emotional control that most of us, hopefully, will never have to exhibit. And police officers are human, just like the rest of us. It goes without saying that, on any given day, a police officer can make a mistake or let his/her emotions get out of control. The difference is, the stakes can be higher in these situations. Any infinite number of things can go wrong and lead to terrible outcomes. And that can happen anywhere – even in Gaithersburg.

That said, I’m extremely proud of our department – the men and women who serve as our officers, all the way up to our Chief, Mark Sroka. Our department makes great efforts to hire only the very best of the officer candidates out there. We have long been committed to a culture of courtesy and restraint. Our officers have been undertaking annual de-escalation training for years, long before it was widely adopted. (In fact I once spent a few hours doing that training with them, and the experience gave me such insight and respect for what the tough jobs they have.) The “duty to intervene,” which is the duty for one officer to stop another officer from using excessive force, is part of the training and the culture of our department. Our policies on ‘use of force’ are aligned with national best practices – and all instances of use of force, which are pretty rare here, are thoroughly reviewed and evaluated by our department. All of that investment in training and culture and policy has paid off in the form of friendly and professional service to our community.

Over the last year, our department used the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as an opportunity to build bridges in the community. They assisted the leaders of those protests by closing streets and ensuring that everyone could participate safely. They forged relationships with those leaders and continued to meet with them periodically to listen, to build trust, and to work together to make things better for everyone. As far as I’m concerned, that was exactly the right way to lead and set a tone of understanding and partnership. These are things to be proud of.

Bottom Line

Our department is staffed by good people doing good work. They’re approaching the concept of ‘community policing’ in a way that works for our community.

Terrible events can happen anywhere. Hopefully they never happen here. But even as there’s no guarantee, what I can say is that I honestly believe that, as leaders, we’re doing everything in our power to minimize that risk – through hiring the best candidates, engaging in enhanced training, and fostering a strong culture of professionalism and friendliness, accountability, trust, and bridge-building. If all of America’s police departments operated like ours, I think we’d all be better off.  

I’m proud of them, and I hope you are, too.