As the city of Laurel is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in connection with an alleged case of police brutality, city officers are saying now is the time for them to receive collective bargaining rights.
The city will have a second public hearing Monday to let the public weigh in on whether the city should take action on a charter resolution providing for collective bargaining.
“Collective bargaining allows the police officers greater security in their positions and a voice in the department,” Mayor Craig A. Moe’s office said in a statement. “If the mayor and city council move forward with other legislation on collective bargaining the administration feels that the impact to city government will be minimal and at no extra cost to the city taxpayer.”
In an address to the council and Laurel residents on July 1, 2008, the mayor said he always has “espoused the opinion that collective bargaining should be considered once the Police Department achieved a budgeted strength of 65 officers.”
The city currently has 65 officers. If the charter resolution passes, the council will establish a labor code for the collective bargaining, said city spokeswoman Carreen Koubek.
City solicitor Robert Manzi said the timing of the effort is not ideal.
Laurel faces a $3 million lawsuit after video surfaced of Pfc. J. Diaz-Chavarria appearing to hit the face a man who had been handcuffed on Aug. 5. The man, D’Ante Williams of Cottage City, has filed the lawsuit against city, claiming personal injury and mental anguish. The officer has been put on administrative leave.
“Maybe it’s not the most opportune time because of the bad publicity that has been created,” Manzi said.
Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said efforts by Laurel officers to receive collective bargaining rights at this time does not build trust within the community.
“It gives the impression that they have done something wrong and are trying to protect their jobs,” he said. “It gives them another layer of protection through collective bargaining.”
Ross said he has 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.
Manzi said his office is aware a lawsuit has been filed, but said his office has not been served with the lawsuit, so he could not comment further on the case.
Jimmy A. Bell, an Upper-Marlboro-based lawyer who is representing Williams in his lawsuit, said he has given the lawsuit and discovery materials to a process server and his 60 days to serve the city has not expired.
“A police officer hit a man in handcuffs and it is on tape,” Bell said. “The police can try to protect themselves, but collective bargaining doesn’t protect them from the truth. It just gives them time to try to get their story together.”
Manzi said the city is in the process of conducting an internal investigation into the case, and said the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office is conducting a criminal inquiry.
John Erzen, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, said his office is aware of the case, but said he could not comment about any details.
Jesse Conyngham, a Laurel police officer who also is president of Fraternal Order of Police Laurel Lodge 11, said city officers have been fighting to receive these rights for roughly 30 years.
“We have been pushing for this for close to 30 years,” he said. “It’s not about looking for a specific change. It’s about asking for a seat at the table when things are open for change. Without collective bargaining, you don’t have stability or a say in what’s going on.”
Conyngham said he could understand how the timing would look bad.
“But it’s been something we’ve been working towards for a long time,” he said.
Conyngham declined to provide specific information on what rights the police are looking for, but said he was encouraged by the fact Bowie police officers received collective bargaining rights last month.
“It’s another similar-sized agency that is close to home,” he said. “Any time a police department can get collective bargaining rights, it’s a big deal.”