The Wash

Increased community scrutiny makes recruiting new officers difficult in Montgomery County

Police officials point to a “negative campaign against police,” while local activists suggest the issue might be internal.

With Montgomery County Police Department’s January academy fast approaching, their Recruitment Division said filling the seats this year is going to be a challenge.

The department hosted a vendor booth at a recent state-wide law enforcement hiring expo held in Frederick. Officer Melissa Coligan said around ten people stopped by their booth over the course of the day to express interest in a job. Coligan has been an officer with MCPD for nearly 20 years, the last three of which she has spent leading recruitment efforts across the state.

MCPD is committed to successfully graduating 34 new officers from January’s academy. Doing so is going to be “hard but not impossible,” Coligan predicts.

The department has received 398 unique applications for the class. While that number may sound high, Coligan said at least half of applicants wouldn’t take the next step and complete the preliminary online test, disqualifying them from consideration.

Before making it to the academy, candidates must successfully pass a multi-step application process which includes a written exam; scored interview; physical fitness assessment; background investigation; polygraph; and psychological and medical examinations. With each step, the pool of qualified candidates shrinks.

Coligan said in years past, MCPD had no problem finding enough candidates capable of completing the academy. These days, she said, it’s harder to be selective with such a small group of applicants.

The department is also seeing a change in the nature of their interactions with the public, according to public safety dispatcher Kim Kelly. She said she’s noticed that people are “less apt to call the police about everything and anything” anymore. In her role as an emergency communications officer, Kelly said she now fields more emergency calls than anything else.

Officer Joe Arnold, who works the midnight shift in Germantown, said he’s seen “a lot” of officers recently leave the force due to a change in atmosphere with the public. The Wash attempted to reach out to these former officers, but none wished to be identified.

Arnold said his family is pressuring him to make a job shift so that he’s not interacting with the public as much, out of concern for his safety in the present political climate. “I don’t watch the news,” he said.

Coligan said according to Captain David Smith of the department’s Personnel Division, out of approximately 1,300 sworn officers, 53 left the department in 2020. Data is not yet complete for 2021, Coligan said.

“Officers don’t want to be proactive,” Arnold said. “They don’t want to be the next one on TV.”

Pinpointing the issue

Coligan said MCPD is experiencing the effects of the recent “negative campaign against police” like all other agencies in the area.

Regarding community support, Coligan said, “I do believe 90% still back the police — but the national media covers the 10%.”

Officer Arnold said more people are approaching him than ever before to express gratitude for his service. He believes these residents are afraid to voice their support publicly due to fear of community backlash, such as “being called racist.”

Local activists suggest the issue is nothing new. “I think there’s always been a recruitment retention problem with police,” said Bob Veiga, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition.

The SSJC is a local grassroots organization founded after the 2018 death of 41-year-old Robert White, an unarmed Black man shot by Montgomery County police. The group’s stated mission is to “reduce the presence of police in our communities” and to “redirect public funds toward community needs.”

Veiga said the police department has been struggling with employee retention for the past couple of decades. “They’re not going to get who they want, because nobody wants to become a police officer,” he said.

The department refuses to change its policies to better reflect the needs and desires of the local community, Veiga said. He believes the MCPD’s reluctance to change has, in turn, lessened the community’s desire to connect with and support the department.

Veiga said another major issue affecting MCPD’s recruitment sag is an unwillingness to diversify its employee base.

“The police force nationally is predominantly white,” Veiga said. “I don’t think they’re trying to actively recruit Blacks and Asians and Hispanics and people who they see as different. Because if they did, the police force would change.”

Pushing back on this idea, Coligan maintained that MCPD is always focused on recruiting women and minorities.

She said as of September 31st, women made up 19% of MCPD’s sworn officers. The national average of female police officers is 13%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Coligan said non-White employees made up 30% of their sworn and professional staff.

She said the department frequently attends recruiting events at historically Black colleges and universities. They are also making plans to relaunch their “Women in Law Enforcement Wednesdays” campaign, which highlights the careers of female officers.

Differing solutions

Montgomery County Police Department requires applicants to have an Associate’s degree to attend its academy, which sets them apart from neighboring jurisdictions. Coligan explained that its rigorous program makes for a “better relationship with the public.”

Arnold added that MCPD being so well-trained and educated “keeps us out of the limelight.”

However, despite their unique educational requirements, MCPD does not rank in the top 10 Maryland departments when it comes to employee compensation. Coligan cited increased salary as a change the department needs to make in order to successfully compete in the job market.

Veiga suggested that instead, the department needs to focus on adding more mobile crisis units. These units dispatch medical professionals to respond to calls involving mental health crises. Instead of going to jail for processing, people are taken to a health center for screening and medical treatment.

Citing Chief of Police Marcus Jones, Veiga said one in four calls the department receives involves a mental health issue. When these mobile units respond to such calls, Veiga said, the community sees better outcomes.

Bob Veiga spoke before reporters at a recent rally held in the memory of 21-year-old Ryan LeRoux, who was shot and killed by Montgomery County police in July. “We’ve been telling the county for four years that people who have mental health crises should not be victims of gun violence by police,” he said.

The county recently received two grants from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for the purpose of expanding local health centers, Veiga said. He believes this will provide more location options for mobile crisis units.

As the department continues to feel the effects of heightened community focus, both sides agree change is needed.

M Colkitt

M is a Baltimore-based journalist concentrated on investigative reporting. They focus on covering the criminal justice system, human rights issues and the LGBTQ+ community. This autumn they're reporting on Montgomery County for The Wash.

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