LANDOVER – The Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) is forming a panel to look at agency policies in the wake of a complaint filed against it with the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleging discriminatory practices.
The department announced the panel’s formation in a memorandum on Feb. 2.
Jennifer Donelan, spokeswoman for the police department, said it will be co-chaired by the PGPD Inspector General and a senior representative of the police union - Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 – that represents the agency’s sworn members. Four panelists will come from outside the department, including the clerk of the court as well as representatives from the county human rights commission and Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, she said.
“The Prince George’s County Police Department is committed to transparency and keeping the public’s trust. The department is strong because of the men and women who make up our ranks. The chief (Hank Stawinski) wants to hear from them directly,” Assistant Chief Hector Velez said in a statement.
He said the panel has been in the works for months and it will focus on studying best practices, promotion processes and discipline patterns.
Those focus points are similar to those raised in a complaint filed with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division by the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association (HNLEA) and the United Black Police Officers Association (UBPOA). The complaint is dated Oct. 31, 2016, and is signed by HNLEA President Joe Perez and UBPOA President Thomas Boone. More than 70 minority officers have since signed on.
“We respectfully request that the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, conduct a thorough, impartial and independent ‘Compliance Review’ of the Prince George’s County Police Department’s handling of allegations of misconduct as it relates to minority complainants as well as the disparities in discipline of minority officers as compared to that of white officers,” the complaint reads. “Our goal is to have an outside entity look at our agency’s policies and practices and make recommendations in order to prevent further disharmony within the department and within the community it serves.”
Donelan said a large factor in Stawinski forming the panel stems from a lack of information on specific alleged incidents. Right now, she said, the department is looking for, what she called, “actual facts” as opposed to “vague rumors.”
“The chief has tried unsuccessfully for months to get the actual complaints, what they are, to get to the bottom of them. And we just don’t have anything to work with. So that has led him to convene this panel so he can get to some actual facts,” Donelan said.
The complaint also requests DOJ look into the Internal Affairs practices of the police department and investigate “denial of promotions and denial of transfers of Black and Hispanic officers.”
The county chapter of the NAACP and of the American Civil Liberties Union are helping with the complaint. Prince George’s County NAACP President Bob Ross said the officers’ groups approached his organization for help, and after meeting with officers and reviewing evidence, the NAACP decided to support the effort.
“Anytime somebody’s rights are being violated, and it could be a violation of Title VII, we get involved,” he said. “We reviewed some of the documents and decided that this could be legitimate.”
Ross said he has seen pictures “depicting Hispanics in a negative way” and showing training dummies with African-American wigs.
Still, the police department has not seen the complaint filed with the DOJ, Donelan said.
“We don’t have information. We have been trying for months to try and get specific reasoning, specific scenarios, and specific problems so that we can address them,” she said. “Without actual specifics – names, dates, cases, this happened on this day, these people were involved – (Stawinski) can’t act.”
The complaint corroborates Donelan’s assertion that department officials have met with the officers involved. It says meetings were held with police higher-ups as well as the inspector general which resulted in “some progress in correcting these issues” being made. However, the complaint also alleges that personnel who made complaints were “vilified,” transferred or denied promotions. It claims “many are worried about coming forward because of reprisal.”
HNLEA has filed similar complaints with the DOJ in 1997 and 2010, the October 2016 complaint notes, but it did not “vigorously pursue” those to allow the police department to address their concerns internally.
The Department of Justice has declined to comment on the complaint other than to confirm it received it and referred it to their Civil Rights Division.
The PGPD panel will convene within the next few weeks.
Ross said he would prefer a completely independent panel to lessen officers’ fears of reprisals for coming forward with complaints.
“The panel is like putting the fox in the hen house. Some of the people that may have been involved are some of the people that may be on the panel,” he said.
Still, Ross said he is supportive of the police department in general, and doesn’t want to see the alleged discrimination impact their success.
“The police are doing a great job- crime is down, there have not been a lot of instances of police brutality,” he said. “But if this attitude persists, it may rub off and affect how officers interact with the community.”