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‘It gives us all a black eye’: Howard police chief discusses racism, brutality, protests, death of George Floyd

Howard County Police Chief Lisa Myers explains why she thinks defunding the police is a bad idea, and how the policies and training in place in Howard exempt the county from many of the issues facing police departments in the U.S.
Howard County Police Chief Lisa Myers explains why she thinks defunding the police is a bad idea, and how the policies and training in place in Howard exempt the county from many of the issues facing police departments in the U.S. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Lisa Myers was named Howard County police chief in January 2019. In that time, more than 1,400 people in the United States have been killed by police, 351 of them black Americans, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. The names of those black Americans have flooded social media and the streets of the U.S. recently as the nation grapples with years of largely unaddressed police brutality and systemic racism brought to the forefront after the killing of George Floyd.

Floyd, a black man, was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25. In the days and weeks that followed, protests spread across the country in major cities and suburbs alike, including in Columbia where thousands gathered June 2.

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Now police departments across the country are being forced by residents to examine their policies, their budgets and the way they’ve functioned for years. Protesters, including some of those in Howard County, have urged for the “defunding” of police, making the case for reinvesting that money in social services that could take over some police responsibilities.

Myers, the county’s first black female police chief who oversees the department’s 475 sworn officers, recently spoke with the Howard County Times. She explained why she thought defunding the police was a bad idea, and how the policies and training in place in Howard exempt the county from many of the issues facing police departments in the U.S.

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“We are hopeful that our citizens will look at our track record, the things that we have been doing for years, not things we’re putting into place because of what happened in Minneapolis but those things that we have been doing and that has been ingrained in our police department,” Myers said.

National conversations trickle down

During the first part of June, Myers said she conducted promotion interviews within the police department, asking officers to reflect on the current discussion. She asked how they processed the national unrest, what they think Howard police as an agency needs to stop doing or do better or focus on, and how the department could get officers more engaged and out on the streets.

“It has been interesting hearing and seeing how this has impacted us because, as a police agency, it is our goal to deliver professional, respectful service to the community,” she said. “We always talk about how we see these incidents with officers acting inappropriately around the country and how it gives us all a black eye.”

Myers was among the thousands in attendance at the HoCo For Justice protest in early June, raising her fist in the air in solidarity for protesters and TV cameras to see. The group of mostly of young adults that organized the march and rally, however, was less than pleased by her presence. Protest organizers said they didn’t want to work with the police when the point was to protest the system they deemed responsible for the violence.

“Our community needs to know that we are committed to protect them, to serve them, to work with them. And to even preserve their right to come out, if they want to protest and the protest is about us,” Myers said. “They need to know the outrage they feel, we feel.”

Last year, the police department restructured its patrol beats in the county to ensure officers were given more opportunities to engage with the community, something Myers called “basic talking to people and building upon those relationships.”

“We strive every day to work hard, to get it right, to be better,” she said. “When we see officers knocking peaceful protesters down with ballistic shields or shooting peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, that’s not how we train. That’s not the philosophy of how we police. We want our community to know that we stand with them in condemning that kind of behavior.”

If an incident like Floyd’s death happened in Howard County, Myers said action against the offending officer or officers would have been swifter.

“For us, it is a violation of policy to put anyone in a chokehold [or] to use any part of their body to cut off someone’s airway. That’s a clear violation of policy, and we would immediately remove that officer from the road. Any officer who stood by and watched an excessive use of force or participated in some way is in clear violation of our policy,” Myers said.

Where does Howard stand

According to data collected by The Washington Post over the past five years, Maryland has had 79 fatal shootings by police of the more than 5,400 nationwide. Sixty percent of the individuals killed by Maryland police were black.

Two of those fatal shootings happened in Howard County.

William Tucker Mathis, an unarmed 41-year-old white man, was killed by police in Elkridge on Jan. 7, 2017, after a physical altercation ensued. Gary Carmona Boitano, a 19-year-old black man who was armed with a knife, was killed by police in Columbia on Oct. 9, 2015.

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In 2019, Howard County police received more than 153,000 calls for service and, according to Myers, officers did not once fire their weapons.

Of those calls, the department received 13 citizen complaints of service and 16 internal complaints from supervisors or other officers in 2019.

“We’ve only had one complaint of a misuse of force [from 2019] and that was investigated and later not sustained,” Myers said. “I think it does demonstrate the benefit of training officers well, of giving them multiple tools to use.”

How are police trained in Howard

To become a Howard County police officer, recruits go through a six-month police academy and a 14-week field training program.

Twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring, officers go through in-service training, what Myers calls a “refresher” to teach and test what officers are doing.

“You want them to be as competent with their words and de-escalating a situation as they are as competent as driving a car or using their firearm,” Myers said.

Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission requires a minimum of 750 hours for an entry-level academy; Howard’s academy requires 1,120 hours. The commission mandates a minimum of 240 hours of field training, and Howard’s program is 560 hours, according to a frequently asked questions webpage the county launched last week.

In fiscal 2021, 2.54% of the $119.96 million Howard County police budget will go toward education and training of police officers, said spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn.

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The $3.045 million spent on training, in part, sends officers across the country to learn material and bring it back to the department, according to Myers.

“I don’t foresee any overhauls to our training curriculum. I think we have a strong, solid curriculum,” Myers said. “I just want to make sure we continue to receive the funding to send our officers to training over and beyond basic training.”

Howard police officers are trained in bias-based policing, impartial enforcement and de-escalation. According to Myers, they get refreshers on these policies during their twice-annual in-service training.

Officers also partake in “Lunch and Learn” sessions where members of the LGBTQ, black, Deaf/hard of hearing, Korean, Hispanic, Indian and Muslim communities share lunch and their experiences with officers.

“[The Lunch and Learns are a] great opportunity for our officers to have dialogue with different segments of our community [and] to get a feel for those people that we’re serving,” Myers said.

The FAQ webpage launched last week addresses many of the questions residents and protesters are asking right now, including about use of force which has filled much of the current dialogue.

“Even with use of force, you have got to be able to train your officers on a regular basis and make sure they have a whole array of tools,” Myers said.

In Howard County, chokeholds are not allowed; neither are intentional strikes nor pressure applied to the throat by any part of the body. If an officer believes excessive force is being used by another, that officer is required to intervene and report the violation. Officers are only permitted to use the minimal level of force “necessary to effect lawful purposes — no more, and for no other reason,” according to the webpage.

Deadly force may only be used when an officer’s life or the lives of others are in imminent danger, according to the webpage. Officers also are required to give verbal warning before using deadly force or deploying a Taser.

Defunding the police

Since demonstrations began at the end of May after Floyd’s death, demands from protesters have largely shifted from charging the officers to defunding the police. The former Minneapolis police officer who was filmed pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck and killing him was charged June 4 with second-degree murder, and the three other officers on the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

In Baltimore, the City Council voted Monday to cut $23 million from the $550 million police budget. The council has the authority to cut money but not reallocate money without action from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The money will likely default to a budget surplus in the next fiscal year.

“As we look at the incident that occurred with George Floyd in Minneapolis and even some of the incidents and how peaceful protesters were handled, it really highlights the fact that police reform is needed in many ways,“ Myers said. “My only fear is just that we’re not moving to far-end extremes, that we’re looking at meaningful change that makes a difference and still allows us the space [to police] a community, to work together and build a strong relationship.”

Myers described “far-end extremes” as measures such as defunding police departments and cutting local and state police departments in favor of funding social services and non-policing forms of public safety.

“I feel [defunding the police] is probably one of the worst things that could be done because so much of good, professional, strong police agencies rely on having the money to properly recruit and to retain qualified and well-trained officers [and] in being able to provide leadership training and specialized training.”

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