Oversight sought for public safety; NAACP chapter president, mayor say county deal with federal officials needs to be extended.
Gazette, 11 Sep 2008 (Valentine).
Prince George's County civil rights leaders are asking the federal government to extend an oversight plan put in place four years ago to monitor excessive force complaints filed against county police.
"We just have too many shootings," said June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's County chapter of the NAACP. "Obviously, we need to do a lot of retraining."
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Dillard said last week that the U.S. Department of Justice should consider altering or expanding an agreement with the county police department designed to cut down on cases where officers allegedly used excessive force.
The agreement, which the county signed with the federal law enforcement branch, called on the force to change everything from training standards to installing video cameras in police cars to settle longstanding concerns that officers were being abusive to suspects and not responding to complaints filed by citizens. At the time, the justice department was wrapping up an extensive investigation into five fatal shootings.
Though an independent monitor has said that the county has complied with almost all of the 67 settlement terms as of June, some critics say several high-profile events this summer cast doubt on the progress.
So far this year, police have used their weapons 14 times to shoot suspects — more than double the number in 2007, according to figures released last month. Seven of the shootings were fatal.
The latest case was the death of Manuel de Jesus Espina, who was shot by off-duty Officer Steven Jackson during an alleged struggle Aug. 16 while he was working security at a Langley Park apartment complex. Though police officials have said Jackson was defending himself when he shot Espina, other witnesses have said the officer shot while the man was trying to get away after Jackson beat him with a baton.
In late June, 19-year-old Ronnie White died in a solitary confinement cell at the county Corrections Center in Upper Marlboro. White had been charged with the murder of a county police officer. The case is still under investigation by state police, but attorneys say federal action should be considered as the investigation stretches on.
"The FBI should get involved immediately," said Bobby Henry Jr., an attorney representing White's family. "There's a growing distrust for law enforcement."
In another incident, deputies with the county sheriff's office raided the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo after police department investigators linked a package of marijuana to the address. During the July 29 raid, deputies shot and killed Calvo's two dogs. Police officials later stated that Calvo and his family were "innocent victims of drug traffickers."
Calvo, who police say has been cleared in the case, has contested police reports that the dogs were aggressive.
"It is clear that our local law enforcement agencies have a culture of disregarding Maryland's no-knock statute and ignoring the rights of innocent occupants and their pets," Calvo wrote in a letter last month to the Justice Department asking them to investigate. "It is also clear that our county law enforcement agencies cannot discipline or investigate themselves."
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All three events took place after the latest quarterly report about the county's progress. A new report is due at the end of the month.
County police spokeswoman Sharon Taylor said officials were unable to comment on the status of the federal agreement last week.
A Department of Justice spokesman, pointing out that the agreement is still ongoing, would only say that the county is cooperating. The county agreement is slated to continue through January 2009, he said.
According to the June report by independent monitor MPRI of Alexandria, Va., the county has succeeded in most of the changes, though it still requires several overhauls in technology and investigation.
The department has complied with the first phase of all 67 steps outlined in the agreement, but officers still need to implement a database that would help warn of potentially abusive officers, and wrap up investigations faster.
The settlement calls for internal affairs investigators to complete their reviews of excessive force complaints within 90 days. Last spring, only one of the 14 active cases was finished in that time, the independent monitor wrote. The long investigation time was the only item that the county was not in compliance with in the report.
The database — which will be used to track officer conduct, uses of force and other data as part of an "early identification system" — accounted for 10 of the "pending compliance" steps. It is currently in use in four or the county's six police districts. Using the database, supervisors could track how many times an officer used pepper spray or charged people for resisting arrest or assaulting an officer.
The monitor noted that there is "lively discussion" in the department on when supervisors should flag an officer for intervention about force use. Police have been pushing for an officers' overall arrest record to be weighed against the number of complaints.