By Brandon Fastman

 

During the last days of August, when another police shooting of an unarmed black person was captured on video and thousands gathered in D.C. for the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March, Hyattsville’s Race and Equity Task Force met twice, focusing much of their discussion on police reform.  

Pathway Toward Unity march participants walk along Baltimore Ave. on their way to Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 2020. (Julia Nikhinson/The Hyattsville Life and Times)

The city has charged the committee, first convened in 2018, with developing a Race and Equity Plan. The plan will address equity in city administration, public services, and community development, and is due to the Hyattsville City Council at the end of the year. 

 

The committee convened on both Aug. 24 and Aug. 25. The purpose of the first meeting was to hold a conversation with state delegate and former Hyattsville resident Alonzo Washington (District 22), who is the co-chair of the recently created Police Reform Work Group, which will report to County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in October. Among Alonzo’s many concerns were the lack of a uniform state code regarding law enforcement’s use of force, a lack of transparency at all levels of government when it comes to sharing law enforcement data and the need for citizen oversight with true subpoena power.

 

A chunk of the discussion centered around what it actually means to defund the police, a phrase that has become a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. Does it mean reallocating resources away from the police and towards, for instance, social services and schools, or does it mean actually abolishing police departments? Washington said, “I don’t think anyone on the panel really believes that [police departments should be completely disbanded],” but he added, “Everything is on the table, as far as I’m concerned.”

 

Washington said that in the entire county, there are between 1,500 and 1,600 police officers, while there are only 64 community policing officers.

 

From there, the discussion turned to whether law enforcement should be present in schools.  According to the Maryland State Department of Education, there were 3,141 arrests in schools during the 2018-2019 school year, including 311 in Prince George’s County. Though only 33% of the state’s students are African American, they accounted for 56% of those arrested. 

 

Washington said there are constituents that want student resource officers (SROs) removed from schools, while others want them there for safety. Northwestern High School’s SROs are provided by the Hyattsville City Police Department, but any policy change regarding the roles of SROs would need to be made at the county level.

 

Members of the Race and Equity Task Force committee expressed a desire to take the public’s temperature on such questions. Committee member Joanne Wasczcak introduced a discussion on participatory budgeting, which means giving citizens a voice in the city’s budgeting process, perhaps through various forms of focus groups. 

 

Underpinning that discussion was one about what voters actually value. On the first night, Washington said that voters generally prioritize education, public safety and healthcare, in that order. 

 

That discussion begged the question of whether voters are adequately informed. As it pertains to the Race and Equity Plan, committee member Latoya Robinson asked for more historical context on the city police department so that community members have a better understanding of “where it was and how it has transformed.” Member Joanne Wasczak suggested that to “some people,” language in the draft may seem “too complimentary” of the police department. 

 

Co-chair Andrea Dargin and committee member Ashleigh Brown-Grier discussed methods, such as surveys and interviews, for collecting community feedback. Co-chair Stacie Whitesides asked for a heat map of police activity in the different wards.

 

Councilmember and liaison to the committee Daniel Peabody (Ward 4) summed up such concerns by saying, “If the argument is that people are made to feel safer [by police] … that’s a very broad, blanket statement. Certainly, the presence of officers don’t make everyone feel safer. … [I]f the argument is going to be made that no, they don’t make people feel safer, then having some evidence behind that, whether it’s anecdotal or empirical, would be necessary.”

 

Members expressed a desire for their work to result in actionable outcomes. They discussed with Peabody how their suggestions would be communicated to the council and mayor. Whitesides suggested forming a race-and equity-focused advisory council that would include a liaison from each of the city’s other committees. Dargin stressed the need to focus on priorities, given the scope of the Race and Equity Plan and a looming due date at the end of the year. 

 

“We only have so much bandwidth and so much time and so much talent,” said Wasczak, lamenting that the city hasn’t provided the committee with enough resources to conduct proper outreach, perhaps in the form of consultants.

 

In fact, community policing is the subject of only one of five sections in the Race and Equity Plan.

 

On Aug. 25, Whitesides presented on the community engagement section. She called for more attention to race, and especially to Black people, saying, “If we are not focused on the people who are marginalized the most, then nothing is ever going to be right.”