Laurel residents and the president of the Prince George’s County branch of the NAACP held a press conference at the Laurel Municipal Center on Monday, expressing frustration with the city’s police department in the wake of a handcuffed man allegedly being hit by a city officer.
About 35 people showed up to the press conference, which was held before the City Council meeting, and six residents expressed their views during the general public hearing portion of the council meeting.
“I have lived in Laurel for 50 years, and I am so unhappy with the Laurel Police Department,” resident Karen Matthews said during the meeting. “An African-American male can’t walk around without being harassed. The consensus is that they have taken off their Klan uniform and put on their badges.”
The outpouring came after video surfaced of a Laurel officer appearing to hit the face a black man who had been handcuffed on Aug. 5. The resident, D’Ante’ Williams of Cottage City, has filed a $3 million lawsuit against city, claiming personal injury and mental anguish. The city was unable to identify the race of the officer by press time.
Matthews’ cousin, Thomas Matthews, said at the hearing that he was “mad, angry, upset and, yes, disappointed” with the city’s police department.
“We will not accept or tolerate this behavior anymore,” he said, as the audience clapped.
Other residents spoke about their own city police encounters, which they described as hostile.
Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said black residents feel their civil and constitutional rights are being violated by city police.
“This community is living in fear of the police department,” he said.
Ross said he filed a complaint on behalf of the NAACP to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division requesting an internal investigation of the department.
Calls to the Civil Rights Division were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Laurel’s Mayor Craig Moe said the officer, Pfc. J. Diaz-Chavarria, has been placed on administrative leave and is “not dealing with the general public.”
Moe promised to “work with the community and the NAACP.”
“If there are bad apples out there, we will take care of them,” he said. “The city has been working with the chief to make sure complaints are followed up on. This is not something I take lightly. It won’t happen overnight, but we will make sure complaints get investigated.”
He said there is an ongoing internal investigation into the incident involving Diaz-Chavarria that was brought by Laurel’s Police Chief Richard McLaughlin and there is a criminal investigation. There are approximately 67 police officers in the department, according to city spokeswoman Carreen Koubek.
“Let’s wait until the investigations are over,” Moe said. “The officer is allowed due process.”