Montgomery County officials are looking at whether it's time to take steps to remedy racial bias in traffic stops by taking traffic enforcement away from the police.
A recent report from Montgomery County's Office of Legislative Oversight highlighted traffic stop disparities between Black and white drivers. Key findings from the report include that 27 percent of Black drivers were stopped in 2019, compared to 14-17 percent of white drivers. In wealthy Bethesda, Black drivers were seven times more likely to be stopped than white drivers in 2018, according to the report.
A virtual town hall set for Thursday night will explore whether it's time to make some changes.
The opinions are strong on both sides of the issue.
"I really am concerned about traffic stops and bias in policing," said Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer.
But Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Tom Didone said otherwise. "To be honest … I do not believe that our department has a disproportional amount of racism or with stops dealing with traffic," he said.
But Reimer said it may be time to switch traffic enforcement to a different county agency, such as the Department of Transportation.
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"I think that we might find that there is a better way to do it, that produces less community reaction and less bias in the results," Riemer said.
The county is just exploring the concept right now. Under Maryland state law, only sworn officers are given authority to enforce traffic law.
But in some other areas, a new method is already under way. For example, in Berkeley, California, lawmakers have approved a plan to switch traffic stops to the local Department of Transportation, although no exact timetable has been given.
In Montgomery County, police aren't so sure that's the right approach. Didone, a longtime traffic safety expert in the D.C. area, called it a mistake to have someone other than a trained police officer making those kinds of stops.
"You don't know who is driving. It's the unknown which is concerning," Didone said. "And it takes experience and time for you to get comfortable in traffic."
He added, "I just don't think it's a good plan to put all our civilians in harm's way."
Didone also said the census data used to show a disproportionate number of Black drivers being pulled over doesn't exactly work, because it doesn't specifically look at Montgomery County residents, but rather anyone from the area who may be driving through Montgomery County.
It is possible that more traffic cameras could be used as a solution, since some lawmakers say human bias would be less of a factor.