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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The bigger picture (Gazette Editorial)

(Posted 13 Aug 2008)

The bigger picture
Gazette, 14 Aug 2008 (Editorial)
Last month, the Prince George's County sheriff's department broke open the front door of the Berwyn Heights mayor, shooting and killing his two dogs as part of a drug raid — only to announce that the mayor and his family were innocent victims of a larger drug-smuggling operation.

A similarly tragic event occurred last year. The Gazette reported in November about a sheriff's department raid on an elderly couple's home in Accokeek that also resulted in the shooting death of their 5-year-old dog. The officers were searching for a suspected drug dealer but apparently ended up at the wrong address.

It would be unfair to judge the county's public safety by the tragically overzealous actions of one branch. However, when you look at each department, the picture gets grimmer.

Just one day after the Berwyn Heights raid, the county police chief announced his resignation — amid news that crime in the county had decreased a paltry 1.7 percent from the same point last year. Prince George's has had 58 homicides this year, second only to Baltimore city.

In June, Ronnie L. White, a 19-year-old charged in the death of a county police officer, was found dead while in custody of the county corrections department.Earlier in the same month, the corrections director was fired after four guns were discovered missing from a locked armory. Earlier this year, corrections officers were accused of smuggling cell phones to jailed gang members and having sexual relations with inmates.

Keith Washington, a former county homeland security official who is now serving a 45-year sentence for shooting two furniture deliverymen in his home, was one of two inmates found with handcuff keys in the county jail this year.

These events come only four years after a federal investigation led to police department reforms addressing police brutality and racial profiling.

These acts should in no way condemn the many honest and well-meaning public safety personnel who put their lives on the line daily to protect residents and who make up the majority of the county's forces.

However, a gigantic red flag should be waving about the overall management of public safety.

So many serious mistakes cannot be dismissed as coincidence. And officials' lackluster reaction to the problems only further raises concerns.

In the case of Ronnie White, some corrections officers on duty at the time of the inmate's death had to be threatened with dismissal because they refused to cooperate with investigators – yet the guards remained on duty.

Similarly disappointing, the sheriff's department has yet to apologize to the mayor and his family, and has waffled on whether officers were required to knock before entering the home.
Rightfully, there has been an outpouring of anger over the department's inability to simply say, "Sorry."

Concerns over legalities appear to have superseded doing what is right.

As federal authorities conduct their review of the raid, it would be wise for county authorities to take inventory, as well – not just of how protocol in raids must change, but also whether management of the departments should change along with it.

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