Policing the Police; A summer of fatal missteps highlights the need for independent oversight of Prince George's law enforcement.
Post, 31 Aug 2008 (Editorial)
IT'S CONCEIVABLE that a surge in fatal shootings by Prince George's County police this year is an anomaly caused by more aggressive criminals, as police officials argue. Conceivable but unlikely, considering the troubled history of the department. The shooting of an unarmed man by an off-duty officer has weakened the already fragile trust between Prince George's officers and the citizens they protect. The alleged strangulation of an inmate in a county correctional center who was accused of killing a police officer has raised more questions. Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) has promised to investigate the shooting. The Maryland State Police and FBI are looking into the inmate's death.
For a skeptical community, this isn't enough. Nor does it serve the majority of officers who do their jobs well. Both the county's police department and correctional center need more independent oversight. . . .
There have been 14 shootings by Prince George's officers this year, half of them fatal. The Post's Aaron C. Davis reported that this is the highest number of fatal shootings by police since before 2004, when federal authorities began monitoring the department. By comparison, there have been only two fatal shootings by police in the District this year and only three in Prince George's last year.
Most recently, Manuel de Jesus Espina was shot and killed by an off-duty officer working as a security guard. Police said that Mr. Espina, who had an open container of alcohol, refused arrest and then reached for Officer Steven Jackson's gun. Witnesses have disputed this account. Mr. Ivey's office is reviewing six of the 14 shootings, including the death of Mr. Espina.
But a criminal investigation won't curtail excessive use of force. More often than not, officers violate department standards -- not the law -- when they use excessive force. Nor is federal oversight of the department, which began in response to allegations of excessive force, a sufficient response. The agreement between the police department and federal authorities, which allowed the county to avoid legal action by the Justice Department, did not require enough public accountability.
The death of Mr. Espina further roiled a community that has grown impatient waiting for the autopsy report of Ronnie L. White, an inmate accused of killing an officer. The autopsy was supposed to be released a month ago; county officials said that it should be ready in the next few weeks. Officials said that the autopsy has been delayed because of the initial reluctance of correctional officers to cooperate with investigators and because of the refusal of Mr. White's family to release pertinent medical information. These may be legitimate reasons for a delay, but they haven't allayed the concerns of many residents.
In response to Mr. White's death, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) arranged for the American Correctional Association to assess the correctional center's practices. The ACA is effectively a trade organization for correctional officers and isn't set up to conduct this type of review. Mr. Johnson should bring in one of the many organizations that could do a more credible job. He should also create a permanent role for independent oversight of the police department, preferably a monitor who participates in each step of an investigation. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago all have credible forms of independent oversight. Prince George's should, too.