Not long after former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman declined further consideration for the Montgomery County police chief position, the county council’s attention quickly pivoted to County Executive Marc Elrich’s latest choice: Darryl McSwain, chief of the Montgomery County division of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police.
However, a group of Montgomery County residents involved in the selection process has called for an investigation into the circumstances of Chapman’s departure. They allege the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the county council, and conservative forces within the media conspired to oust Chapman, a Black woman with a reputation of holding officers accountable.
“It seemed like some of the council members didn’t like Tonya Chapman because the FOP didn’t like her,” said Katie Stauss of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition (SSJC).
This group, comprised of grassroots organizations and Montgomery County residents, formed in the aftermath of Montgomery County resident Robert White’s police-involved shooting death last year. Earlier this summer, SSJC members took part in a community panel to vet Elrich’s choices for Montgomery County police chief.
On Sept. 5, nearly two weeks after Elrich announced Chapman’s decision, SSJC petitioned the Montgomery County Council for a list of more than three dozen questions prepared for Chapman during the vetting process, and an assertion that officials embraced Chapman’s efforts to improve police-community relations in Portsmouth.
“The FOP worked through their political and media contacts to undermine Tonya Chapman,” she said. “The county council could’ve been more sensitive to that and appreciate that there would be people against her because she wants to hold police accountable. A low-key character assassination happened in Montgomery County.”
In the aftermath of police bodycam footage that caught a Montgomery County police officer using a racial slur toward a Black suspect, conversation around police-community relations have centered on how to establish trust between officers and Montgomery County’s young, nonwhite residents.
SSJC members heralded Chapman as the person to carry out such a task, as she had done so in instances that affected her professionally.
Earlier this year, Chapman, Virginia’s first Black female police chief, resigned from the Portsmouth Police Department amid accusations of low officer morale. During her three-year tenure at the Portsmouth Police Department, Chapman enforced de-escalation tactics and reported incidents of alleged discrimination to the FBI. Her prior experience includes stints at the Arlington County Police Department, Richmond County Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
Chapman’s relationship with the majority-white police force quickly soured following the 2016 conviction of former officer Stephen Rankin, a white man, in the shooting death of William Chapman II, an 18-year-old Black man. In a four-page letter addressed to Portsmouth residents this year, she implicated the city manager in a conspiracy to force her out of office.
Chapman didn’t reply to an email from The Informer about her experience as Portsmouth police chief or the circumstances of her resignation from the Montgomery County police chief selection process.
In July, Elrich revealed Chapman as the lone candidate for the Montgomery County police chief position after Takoma Park Police Chief Antonio Devaul dropped out of the running. In response to concerns about her relationship with the Portsmouth police force, Elrich cited professional differences, not Chapman’s competency, as a key cause.
Such assurances didn’t quell what supporters called a media blitz that questioned Chapman’s ability to work well with Montgomery County police officers. Another point of controversy involved more than 40 questions that council members submitted on August 15 to Elrich. Some of those inquiries touched on domestic violence, Chapman’s tenure as Portsmouth police chief and her views on police-community relations.
Attempts to gather comment from Montgomery County Council members Nancy Navarro, Sidney Katz and Tom Hucker, all of whom serve on the council’s public safety committee, about the police chief vetting process proved futile.
Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando, author of legislation that increased transparency in police-shooting investigations, contended that the media battle distracted from a selection process that allowed him and his colleagues to know Chapman.
At this juncture in the police chief search, county officials must focus on getting a chief who values community programming, he said.
“It’s unfortunate how this played out. The focus of the county should be how to get a police chief that understands policing needs to be equitable,” said Jawando, an at-large representative. “We need someone who’s willing to address information about disparate arrests, dig into the statistics and be willing to change it. We need someone who’s willing to build trust by implementing a community policing program. That’s very important for our police chief.”