Anguish Allies Disparate Groups; Incidents Involving County Law Enforcement Raise Questions and Concerns and Spark Unity.
Post, 9 Oct 2008 (Davis ).
Prince George's civil rights leaders said at first it seemed like a horrible, but at least isolated, incident: A 19-year-old suspected of killing a county police officer was found strangled in his jail cell in June, and corrections officers were under suspicion.
A month later, however, more appalling news: Sheriff's deputies and county narcotics officers raided the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights and fatally shot his two dogs. The mayor and his family were innocent; a county drug investigation soon pointed elsewhere.
Then, another questionable killing: An off-duty Prince George's police officer shot a Langley Park man in August while attempting to arrest him for having an open container of alcohol. It was the year's seventh fatal shooting by county police.
For county civil rights groups, the death in custody of Ronnie L. White , the violent raid on the home of Mayor Cheye Calvo and the shooting of Manuel de Jesus Espina have melded together to raise larger questions about the culture of law enforcement in Prince George's.
The three incidents have drawn together the often disparate efforts across the county of the NAACP , immigrant rights groups and neighborhood associations. Animal rights groups have also joined the alliance.
"We all are concerned, and we all need answers," said June White Dillard, president of the county chapter of the NAACP.
After the July 29 raid on Calvo's home, Dillard called for a thorough investigation, saying the mayor, who is white and Hispanic, experienced police action familiar to many young black men in the county. After Espina's death, Dillard locked arms with leaders of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland.
Only recently has the degree of unity become clear. The groups met with Acting Police Chief Roberto Hylton , and families and friends of the three victims stood together for the first time recently at a Langley Park rally that drew more than 300 participants.
With county public safety director Vernon Herron looking on and promising that investigations would reveal the truth in each case, the gathering went on for hours. Those in attendance denounced Prince George's police, who shot Espina; the county's Corrections Department, which had custody of White; and the Sheriff's Office, which led the raid on Calvo's home.
The three incidents are under investigation, and the FBI is monitoring the White and Calvo cases.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, said the lack of answers in the three cases is fueling the increased coordination among the groups. Prince George's police and county State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) are reviewing the shooting of Espina and have not said when the probe will be finished.
Police have said that Officer Steven Jackson was trying to arrest Espina after finding him drinking in an apartment building stairwell but that Espina resisted. Jackson fired his gun after Espina's son arrived and joined the fray, police said.
Witnesses dispute that account, saying Jackson beat Espina before shooting him. Espina's son also says his father dropped to his knees moments before Jackson fired and pleaded with the officer to stop beating him.
Questions also linger in the Berwyn Heights raid. Days after it, police said, they made two arrests and recovered nearly 500 pounds of marijuana, most sent to addresses of unsuspecting residents, including Calvo's wife, Trinity Tomsic . Police have not identified two men they say were behind the incident.
Dillard said the death of Ronnie White and the unfulfilling investigation into the death to date have left the biggest cloud over Prince George's. She faulted Ivey for not having sought an indictment, despite a final autopsy report by the state's chief medical examiner last month that listed White's death as a homicide by asphyxiation.
An attorney for the county correctional officers association said a guard found White with a sheet around his neck, and Ivey has said he has not ruled out the possibility that White committed suicide.
"He was killed; it was a homicide," Dillard said at the rally. "It's time he indicted someone on homicide."
County residents protest police brutality; Langley Park rally draws hundreds
Gazette, 2 Oct 2008 (Izadi).
Four groups of families stood side-by-side before hundreds of other families in Langley Park and held signs in English and Spanish that recounted the details of how their fathers, brothers or sons died.
The four, from different parts of Prince George's County, all shared a common link—they lost loved ones in incidents involving the Prince George's County Police Department or while under the care of the Department of Corrections.
"We are a society where justice should prevail," said June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP , as the families surrounded her. "We want them to obey the laws, just like we do."
A number of community organizations, including immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland, hosted the Sept. 24 rally and march against police brutality in Langley Park, largely in response to the Aug. 16 death of Manuel de Jesus Espina , 43, who was shot by off-duty police officer Steven Jackson during an altercation in his apartment building on the 8000 block of 14th Street.
According to police, Jackson tried to arrest Espina for an alcohol violation. Jackson used pepper spray and his baton as Espina resisted arrest, and his son tried to take Jackson's baton away. Jackson feared for his life, police said, and shot Espina once in the torso.
At the time of the incident, Jackson was wearing his police uniform and working part-time as security guard for the apartment complex.
Maj. Andrew Ellis, a county police spokesman, said the shooting is still under investigation with the department's Serious Incident Response Unit, which conducts all police officer investigations. Jackson has been placed on administrative leave, in accordance with department policy.
Espina's wife, Estela Jacome, and son, Manuel de Jesus Espina Jacome, stood before the rally with other families. They said they felt left in the dark on the status of the investigation.
"We're feeling very confused right now, and we're almost sick because of it," his wife said in Spanish. "Once there is justice, there will be peace."
March organizers also invited audience members to speak about their own negative experiences with the police, and Casa attorneys compiled them into an official complaint.
Ellis said official complaints are investigated, and the officer with a complaint lodged against him cannot have contact with the person who filed the complaint. Citizens can make official complaints by filling out a form, located at police stations and public libraries.
"We certainly want to know if any of our residents are concerned about a specific incident by what they perceived as misconduct by one of our officers," he said. "We try to make it as easy as possible for a resident to report any allegations of brutality or excessive force."
Angie Johnson, the aunt of Ronnie L. White, said White's friends have been intimidated and harassed by police in the Beltsville area. White was killed while being held in a county jail cell for the June 27 death of Cpl. Richard Findley, county officer and volunteer for the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department, who was struck in Laurel by a reportedly stolen pickup truck he was investigating.
Dorothy Elliott, whose son died after being shot 14 times by a county and District Heights officer in 1993, said there was a pattern among all of the cases, including character assassination of those shot by the police.
"There's an urgent need for justice in Ronnie White's and Manuel de Espina's cases," Elliott said. "And not Prince George's justice. I know firsthand what Prince George's justice is."
Tadele Gezahegn, brother of Genete Brooke, who was killed last month in unincorporated Hyattsville after an almost seven-hour barricade standoff with county police, criticized the police for use of excessive force, including tanks, to barricade Brooke, who had shot at police in Hyattsville.
Gustavo Torres, Casa's executive director, said he was hopeful that community relations with the police will improve dramatically with the county's new acting police chief, Roberto Hylton , and he reassured the crowd that Hylton knew their concerns. Casa representatives have already met with Hylton.
"He's Latino, and he's Afro-Latino. He knows the community very well," he said. "His philosophy is going to change the relationship between the police and the community."
The county police has a Citizen Compliant Oversight Panel which looks into complaints against the police and an early intervention system which indentifies officers with potential problems.
County Director of Public Safety Vernon Herron attended the rally to hear community concerns over police conduct and ensure residents' complaints will be "investigated to find the truth," he told the group.
"I hope that everyone that has a complaint against the police department files it so we can look into it," he later said.
Sen. David Harrington (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly stood before the crowd and held up a child with a sign that read "Langley Park community deserves respect from police officers."
"This is what I want," Harrington said. "So this young man can go to school, can play and be what he wants to be without intimidation. Is this what you want?"
The little boy yelled into the microphone, "Yes!"
E-mail Elahe Izadi at firstname.lastname@example.org .