Montgomery County Sheriff Ryan Needham had at least one hypothesis about why he received so few applications for the open position for a school resources officer he was trying to fill.
“Our biggest challenge, you know, is getting quality people to fill those spots,” he said “It’s just hard to find people that want to do it. And that’s across the board. You know, I mean, the police department is struggling, the fire department is struggling.”
He noted that the city canceled its primary because no one is running.
“That drive to be involved in your community and to put yourself out there, I mean, has really, really been reduced,” he said.
When Needham was hired in 1997, up to 70 candidates competed for a position. For the SRO position, he had only four applicants just two hours before the application deadline closed. When the pool of applicants is smaller, the chances of hiring only the qualified candidates diminish significantly, he pointed out. Needham leans on the process of hiring the right people to assure fair, judicious policing in Montgomery County.
Being a police officer has never been an easy job. It requires a deep toolkit of social-emotional skills, as well as the ability to shift to the right ones depending on the call. On a given day in the county, an officer may face a domestic violence incident, followed by a fatal interstate accident, an overdose, and a parent calling on an erratic or suicidal teenager. The pace and potential risks of the job pull a huge cognitive demand.
Since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, policing has gotten even harder. The institution-leery public took to the streets demanding for more accountability, transparency and training. Some sought to “defund the police.” Others wanted a foundational restructuring of roles and responsibilities in situations such deescalation in a mental or behavioral health crisis. Presently, Montgomery County deputies have minimal training yet are dispatched to mental and behavioral crises.
Needham’s force routinely struggles with the expectation that the county jail will substitute for hospital services in cases of mental illness or crisis, a problem that he said he doesn’t see the state doing anything about it. He said that law enforcement is the only option after Valley Oaks and Cummins close for the evenings and weekends and that can mean a “timeout” in jail.
“But they’re not getting the help they need here. I mean, you know, they’re safe. For the most part, the community safe, but we’re not doing anything to fix that problem.” — Check out the LWV column “There’s a Better Way” about how Maryland is relieving officers of those duties by giving them to mental health professionals.
Most communities don’t want to defund or dismantle the police. Some have put their dollars on accountability and transparency, funding cameras for every officer. Sheriff Needham said that he wished people would interact reasonably with law enforcement, and if they feel their rights were violated, resolve that in the courts.
Dethorne Graham did just that after suffering a broken foot and other injuries while being detained by officers. He was in a state of diabetic shock and waving his arms around. Though he hand not threatened or struck anyone, the US Supreme Court set a precedent with its ruling. It weighted the officers’ point of view over the person’s. (Source: More Perfect — Mr. Graham and the Reasonable Man.) But no community wants its reputation blackened by an incident, which is why they’ve called for better training to help officers to respond less aggressively to someone like Dethorne Graham, or Charles Kinsey, the Miami, Florida, caregiver shot while trying to coach his client with autism back into a facility, or Daniel Prude of New York, killed while suffering an acute mental crisis.
Presently deputies need 24 hours of training annually and can pursue more in their areas of interest. Needham said his deputies pursue SWAT, cyber-crime, polygraph testing, interviewing and canine unit training. Around the country, other departments are implementing Crisis Intervention Training, Deescalation, Non-stress-based training, and procedural justice policing — where officers begin with a focus on giving dignity, respect, and voice, as well as being trustworthy, neutral and transparent. It jives with what Needham considers the cornerstone of his philosophy.
“My philosophy is simple. It’s truly treat people how you want to be treated,” he said, “or how you would want your family member treated.”
But it also needs to be an essential discipline in every aspect of the job, and that requires training.
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