Anne Arundel County’s new Chief of Police, Amal Awad, was officially sworn-in Thursday morning, marking a historic day for the county: she’s the first woman and the first member of the LGBTQ community to permanently hold the position.

“To every little girl, every young lady, let your light shine and reach for the sky,” she said at her swearing-in ceremony. “Your potential and your opportunities are endless.”

But Awad is also the first Black police chief the county has hired, and her appointment comes during a year fraught with civil unrest following a series of high-profile police shootings and killings of Black men and women throughout the country:

  • Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three men, including a former Georgia law enforcement officer, and ultimately shot to death as he jogged through his neighborhood in February;
  • A no-knock warrant led to the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Ky., police officers in March;
  • In May, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he suffocated, as other officers looked on;
  • Rayshard Brooks was mortally wounded by an Atlanta police officer in June;
  • Though he died of injuries sustained during an interaction with Aurora, Colo., police in August 2019, protests broke out seeking justice for Elijah McClain in July; and
  • In August, Jacob Blake was hospitalized after being shot in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis.

These are just a few police deaths the U.S. has seen of late.

On Dec. 17, the Mapping Police Violence database reported that 1,039 people have been killed by law enforcement this year ― 28% of whom were Black. According to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, Black people make up 13.4% of the population.

The nationally highlighted police shooting of Blake and the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, McClain and Brooks erupted in cries across the nation to defund, or, in some cases, abolish, local police departments.

Awad’s predecessor, former Anne Arundel County Police chief Tim Altomare, felt compelled to resign as a result.

“There is a movement in this nation and in this county to remove the teeth of the police,” Altomare wrote in an op-ed published by The Capital Gazette in July. “It is wrong and it will have grave and lasting effects that you will see and feel.”

“I am not leaving because I want to,” he wrote to the officers under his command. “I am leaving because I will not be a part of a movement that endangers you or the people we are sworn to protect.”

Acknowledging the mass policing reform movement that the events of 2020 have spawned, Awad said moments after her swearing-in that it’s time to have tough conversations about how enforcement agencies to gauge their sense of 2020’s civil rights inequities and how policing needs to change to meet the challenges America faced in 2020.

“This year has been probably one of the most challenging years in my entire career,” Howard County Police Chief Lisa D. Myers acknowledged.

Where do we go from here?

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones served his department for nearly 35 years before he became the agency’s chief of police in 2019.

Jones told Maryland Matters in a recent phone interview that his identity as a Black man and police officer have come into conflict for most of his life.

“People will always look at you based upon your race. That’s been the way we’ve done this in America since I’ve been born and way before,” he said. “So, in policing, when we go in and we’re actually being a part of an institution that has had significant issues with minority communities ― particularly the African American community ― it presents a unique challenge because … I as a black man and any other African American male has to deal with, really, two different worlds.”

Myers, who has been with her department for about 30 years, and came out of retirement when she was appointed chief by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) ― Howard’s first Black county executive ― expressed similar feelings.

“It is a challenge because one can teeter between both worlds,” she said. “As a Black female having a young Black son, I can certainly understand concerns of having a young teenager at a driving age. As a chief of police, I can understand the concerns for officers wanting to be safe, understanding the perils that are out there in the community that you talk about.”

Myers and Jones noted that instances like the widely circulated video of Floyd being pinned to the ground don’t make things any easier.

Myers called his death “horrific.” Jones said that Floyd was treated “less than human.”

“That’s probably one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in the course of my career; of really treating someone less than human by a police officer,” he asserted.

Both also want clearer lines of communication between the public and their agencies to establish some kind of mutual understanding.

Jones has managed to have conversations with the community at large since the deaths of Taylor and Floyd about his department’s policies. He expressed a desire to have both law enforcement and members of the public look past race and feel empathy and understanding for their respective experiences.

“It does present a challenge, but the challenge for me is to be able to come in and be a changemaker ― to make it better,” he said.

“I think we trust people more the more you know them ― when you have a better relationship with them,” Jones explained. “There’s always going to be this fear or a lack of trust when you really don’t know people as the individual, and sometimes that’s where we get caught up in looking at an institution and a profession without looking at the police officer as an individual.”

Myers said in October that she’s noticed a lack of willingness to participate on the part of protesters.

“I come from a community-oriented background in the police department. When there are problems or issues, [I] want to sit down and discuss [them] and figure out how we can find common ground,” she said. “And one of [the] things I have found with some of the organizations that have protested in the county, they don’t want to sit down and talk to me, because I do represent the blue.”

“Sometimes, for the community, they see that blue uniform and that uniform is what they see before they want to get a chance to talk to me and maybe understand that there are some experiences that we can talk about that I will understand,” Myers said.

Charles County Sheriff and Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission’s Chairman Troy Berry (D) has testified multiple times during the interim of the legislative session before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland in defense of maintaining a series policing regulations ― including the hotly contested Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

He told Maryland Matters that he hears the public’s outrage and their roars for reform.

“I hear individuals, wanting some type of accountability,” he said. “And my job ― not only as an African American, but as a sheriff ― is to [ask] how can we chart a positive pathway forward to continue to enhance police and community relations?”

‘I really don’t know … what defunding means’

Following Floyd’s death in May, Berry did a comprehensive review of the department’s use of force policy with his officers and asked the Charles County Board of Commissioners to allocate extra funds for body-worn cameras, to enhance the department’s use of force training and provide additional diversity, de-escalation and conflict resolution training sessions.

But some experts say mid-career training isn’t enough, and that pre-employment screening is the best way to get officer recruits with the best disposition for policing.

“When we first started talking about police reform in the wake of bias and tolerance issues, I heard a lot of people talk so much about training: ‘We need to do de-escalation training, we need to do mental health training,”’ said Dr. Heather K. McElroy, a police and public safety psychologist. “Well, if the people that we are training don’t have the intellectual ability to learn the things that we’re trying to teach them, or they don’t have the tolerance, the responsibility, the self-control or the integrity, all of that training isn’t going to be worth our while because we’ve already got the wrong people in the door.”

McElroy told the House Judiciary Committee during a briefing this month that Maryland “does better than some” states when it comes to pre-employment screening, but doesn’t have hard and fast standards regarding interviewing potential recruits during their psychological examination or if the exam has to be administered by a psychologist.

She also said that, even in circumstances where psychologists are screening recruits, they’re generally looking for mental health disorders ― not for traits that would make a good police officer.

“Integrity, for example,” McElroy declared. “A lack of integrity is not a mental health disorder. However, it’s a hugely important characteristic for law enforcement. If the person has a lack of integrity, they have low-stress tolerance, they have low self-control, they’re probably not going to be a good officer and they’re the ones that are going to wind up in the news on the department for excessive use of force and bad judgment.”

Additionally, the money that Berry asked for is in direct conflict with the months-long calls of protesters and community organizations to reallocate money traditionally given to police departments to other facets of government that can provide community support.

Jones, Myers and Berry disagree with the idea of defunding local departments.

“I understand some of that,” Jones said. But he also struggles with the concept because of how that might take away from his and other departments’ ability to do their job.

“I really don’t know … what defunding means,” he said. “I think that’s been part of the problem is that there’s been these discussions about defunding the police that aren’t really clearly defined,” Jones said.

Berry expressed concern about what could potentially be taken away.

“If you’re talking about defunding police, meaning taking money from police, whether it be a sheriff’s office or police department, my next question I have to ask you … is what services does the sheriff’s office or police department have to scale back?” Berry asked. “Because if you’re taking money from us, we can’t perform certain services in our community.”

Maryland Fraternal Order of Police President Clyde Boatwright, who is Black, told Maryland Matters that conversations about defunding ― or, in some cases, abolishing ― police departments “become very, very dangerous” in some communities, including his own. But he did concede that there are responsibilities that could be diverted from police departments, like handling mental health calls or disputes between neighbors.

“But how does how does that look?” he asked.

“I think no officer is going to be mad at taking those nuisance calls ― loud noise complaints and things like that ― away from a police response,” said Boatwright, a police sergeant with the Baltimore City Public Schools, “but it’s the other crimes of violence that we see in our communities that it is important that the officers have every available tool necessary to them ― to include funding ― that we would need in order to stop and rid our communities of people who … are hell-bent on creating havoc in our communities.”

“I think all professions need to constantly evolve and change with time,” Boatwright said.

The boots on the ground

There is no question that the nation was rocked by the visceral images of police slayings circulated throughout 2020. But Maryland law enforcement agencies are not immune to tragedy, either.

In 2015, protests erupted after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police Department. And the family of Anton Black is still seeking justice following his 2018 death after being held in police custody on the Eastern Shore.

But it goes deeper than that: Between 2013 and 2020, police from agencies across the state killed 143 people. And the Mapping Police Violence Database reports that 15 people were killed by law enforcement officers this year:

  • Vusumuzi Kunene, Prince George’s County Police Department;
  • Rodney Eubanks, Baltimore City Police Department;
  • Bryan Selmer, Frederick County Sheriff’s Department;
  • Edwin Morales, Hyattsville Police Department;
  • Julio Cesar Moran-Ruiz, Maryland State Police;
  • Robert Johnson Jr., Baltimore County Police Department;
  • Finan Behre, Montgomery County Police Department;
  • De Quang Tran, Charles County Sheriff’s Department;
  • Rick Howell, Maryland State Police;
  • Etonne T. Tanzymore, Baltimore City Police Department;
  • Duncan Socrates Lemp, Montgomery County Police Department;
  • Michael Marullo, Baltimore City Police Department/U.S. Marshals Service;
  • John Francis Tippett Jr., St. Mary’s County Sheriffs Office;
  • William Howard, Prince George’s County Police Department; And
  • Gamel Antonio Brown, Baltimore County Police Department.

As the 2021 legislative session looms nearer, lawmakers are drafting and finalizing police reform bills. But at the end of the day, the officers with their boots on the ground make split-second, life-or-death decisions.

“Often I ask officers to think about why they entered this profession and what taking the oath of office means to them,” Awad said. “The average response, oftentimes, [is] because they truly want to help people and make a difference in the community.”

“The oath of office for me serves not only as our promise to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state and county, but to do so justly and without malice; treat all we encounter with dignity and respect, no matter their lot in life; to value and uphold the sanctity of life.”

By Hanna Gaskill

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.