Restoring trust in public safety -- Gazette.Net


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Prince George’s County police have long struggled to escape the cloud of mistrust that has followed them for more than a decade, when the department was placed under federal oversight for excessive-force complaints.

However, recent allegations against officers in the county department and in municipal forces threaten to worsen matters.

For example, in February, county officer Cpl. Donald Taylor, a 13-year-veteran, alleged a 19-year-old was involved in a robbery and, during a pursuit, said the teen tried to reach for the officer’s gun. Taylor reported he fired at the teen but missed. The teen spent four months in jail on charges of assault and resisting arrest before police determined he was falsely accused. Last month, video was released of the officer apparently striking the teen in the head with a gun, causing the gun to fire. Taylor has been suspended and is facing charges.

On Sept. 6, a District Heights officer shot a handcuffed man in the back, claiming the motorcycle theft suspect was attempting to flee.

Laurel residents, along with the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, held a news conference Sept. 10 to voice disapproval of the Laurel Police Department, pointing to an Aug. 5 video in which a Laurel officer appears to hit a handcuffed man in the face. Residents said city officers are often hostile.

“We will not accept or tolerate this behavior anymore,” Laurel resident Thomas Matthews told the City Council.

The officers in both municipal incidents are on administrative leave while the cases are under investigation. Additionally, in recent months, three county officers were sentenced for taking part in an extortion conspiracy.

Granted, such cases are relatively few. The county police department has about 1,600 officers; District Heights and Laurel have 12 and 67, respectively. The majority of officers are law-abiding public servants who also suffer from the poor decisions of some of their colleagues.

But given the heightened sensitivity to alleged police abuse in the county — it took the county five years, ending in 2009, to make changes as required by the Department of Justice to protect residents from any bad apples — it would be wise for county and municipal leaders to jointly and separately review internal procedures, share the results with the community and commence outreach efforts to address the negative perception.

Although some municipal departments are less likely to have the resources to implement procedures the Justice Department required of county police, such as having cameras mounted in police vehicles, there may be other less-costly measures worth trying, such as citizen oversight panels or additional in-service training. And councils should consider putting money aside to allow for the more expensive improvements in the future.

All would benefit from a joint effort to address the forces’ image; after all, when one officer behaves badly, no matter which department, it can reflect poorly on all those wearing the shield.

Crime overall is down greatly in Prince George’s County, to lows not seen since the 1980s. Citizen complaints in the county department are down, too. So far this year, county police had received 78 complaints, down from 93 last year and 119 in 2010.

Clearly, public safety officials are doing a lot of things right; now, they just need to let the public know how they are handling the few who might be doing wrong.