SEABROOK – A local criminal justice organization has begun a public campaign that demands the removal of Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) Chief Hank Stawinski.
Community Justice, also known as the Prince George’s County Community Justice Coalition for Justice & Accountability, began an online petition on Oct. 28 for the removal of Stawinski following a year of actions committed by PGPD officers onto county residents. Kema Harris, the organization’s co-founder, said Stawinski is a hindrance in the county’s battle against crime.
“Since Mr. Stawinski became Chief of Police in February 2016, he presided over, and indeed failed to bring an end to a pattern and practice of egregious and racially bigoted criminal misconduct on the part of Prince George’s County police,” the petition said.
The petition comes after a 24-year-old man was severely injured during a traffic stop when officials attempted to arrest him. According to police officials, Demonte Ward-Blake attempted to flee from custody while handcuffed when officers brought him down, injuring his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
In a press conference, Stawinski defended the officers’ actions, stating that they did not mean to hurt Ward-Blake, and calling the incident a “horrible accident.” However, for Harris, it was the final straw, citing the lack of evidence and Stawinski’s unwillingness to release the dash camera footage to the public. Harris and members of Community Justice joined a protest outside the District 3 station on Oct. 26 in support of Ward-Blake.
“There is no accountability for people of color being harassed, being maimed or killed by PGPD officers,” Harris said. “There is no accountability, and the chief has yet to make us feel safe, knowing that he has the public’s safety as his No. 1 interest, and it is not happening.”
As of Oct. 29, the petition has less than 100 signatures in one day of activity with the goal of 10,000 supporters. Before posting the online petition, Harris said she submitted several letters throughout the year to several elected officials, including County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-4), and all the members of the Prince George’s County Council.
Councilmember Deni Taveras (District 2) responded, agreeing that all PGPD officers should have body cameras while Inspector General Donnell Turner met with the organization, Harris said.
“The chief is the gatekeeper of justice in the police department,” Harris said. “He is the head; he sets the patterns in practice, and if he continues to let them get away with their actions, they will continue to assault us.”
In response to the petition, Deputy Chief of Staff John Erzen said in a statement that both PGPD and the County Executive’s Office have seen it and any allegations made against the police department are taken “very seriously.”
“The investigation into the injury that occurred to Mr. Ward-Blake remains under investigation,” Erzen said. “In the very near future, the County Executive and Chief Stawinski will be reaching out to the community to update them on the investigation and to discuss some actions we will be taking.”
Harris established the organization following the arrest of her son, Kevin Sneed, who was acquitted of assaulting a PGPD officer on May 3. Officers pulled over Sneed in 2017 over for a broken taillight.
However, the officers claimed he attempted to accelerate away and possessed a gun, charging him with attempted murder despite finding no weapons in his vehicle.
Sneed, who claimed to be injured by the officers following his arrest, received help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and Black Lives Matter D.C. for a new defense team and ended up being acquitted from the charge. Since then, Harris said, she has been working to bring justice to residents who have to deal with bad officers.
Despite reporting that crime is down 50% throughout the county, PGPD has faced several incidents of misconduct of their officers, a huge concern for residents, Harris said.
A lawsuit was filed on Dec. 12, 2018, by 11 police officers and two labor organizations, citing discriminatory practices by the agency. The suit alleges that white officers engaged in racial misconduct towards colleagues and citizens with little discipline by department leadership.
County police received scrutiny after the officer-involved shooting death of 49-year-old Leonard Shand. Six PGPD, City of Hyattsville and Mount Rainier Police officers shot him after Shand attempted to sprint at them with two knives in his hands.
However, the ACLU of Maryland states the timeline provided by PGPD does not match videos circulating over social media, which shows a flashbang grenade being deployed before Shand moved forward towards officers before the shooting. All 10 officers involved were placed on administrative leave.
There have been times that Stawinski did respond to negative incidents. On Oct. 25, Cpl. Stephen Downey was sentenced to six months of a five-year sentence in jail after being convicted of second-degree assault and misconduct for punching a handcuffed man multiple times in the face.
Fellow officers reported Downey ‘s actions to PGPD leadership, who suspended him. After the verdict on Aug. 8, Stawinski apologized to the victim, Andre Verdier, while stating that it was the third time during his tenure that officers reported misconduct behavior committed by another officer.
In the past, when questioned about Stawinski’s leadership, Alsobrooks said she supported the department’s transparency to the community. After a six-month-long unauthorized yet legal incentive program was discovered and ended, the county executive said she liked the timeliness in addressing the issue right away first, then explaining to the public how PGPD planned to fix it.
“I am glad that the chief did not wait for the community to come to him and ask the question,” Alsobrooks said. “(Residents) will never have to worry. When we discover a problem, we will bring it to you first and tell you how we plan to address it.
However, those actions are not enough, Harris said.
“We are suffering in the inner beltway,” Harris said. “I want people outside the beltway to, at least, have an open mind to the cries of the community with this, including the naysayers who support the chief.”
Members of Community Justice, including Harris, plan to attend a “Civility Conversations” town hall on police and community relations in the county that will take place at the Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. According to the advertisement, elected officials and faith leaders plan to attend to discuss residents’ relationships with the police.