- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

The Prince George's County (Md.) Police Department, beset by complaints of excessive force and bias, now faces the prospect of being directed and monitored by the federal government.

"The major problem is accountability," said Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Citizens don't believe police officers are being held accountable."

In April, Mrs. Hall and other county NAACP members presented the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division with logs containing police brutality charges.

The Civil Rights Division, which has infrequently imposed consent decrees on local police forces, told the group it will review the information but gave no indication when it would complete its work.

Consent decrees are strict directives that amount to a takeover of local police by the federal government, said Ted Deeds, director of operations for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

"There are very few cases in history where a department is totally corrupt" and requires a full federal takeover, Mr. Deeds said.

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Justice Department is authorized to "obtain appropriate equitable and declaratory relief to eliminate the pattern or practice" of depriving individuals of rights protected by the U.S. Constitution or federal laws.

The Justice Department has used the law to investigate the police forces of several jurisdictions, including New York City, Chicago and Orange County, Fla. But it has issued consent decrees only in Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio both the targets of numerous complaints and investigations.

In Prince George's County last year, police were subject to 98 complaints, 66 of which focused on excessive force by officers. Police reports indicate that one complaint about force was filed for every 7,863 calls for police service in 1999.

"One case of excessive force is too much," County Council member M.H. "Jim" Estepp said.

But he added that complaints of police abuse are relatively few, considering that the county's 1,400 officers had nearly 3 million contacts with the public in three years.

The county police department has recorded 10 police-related deaths in the past 23 months, four police shootings of suspects since November and two brutality lawsuits resulting in $4.7 million in judgments against the force in April.

The FBI is investigating 19 complaints against the county police force.

"The great majority of police officers in the county are out here doing the things they are supposed to be doing," said police Chief John S. Farrell. "It's only a small number of police officers that need special attention."

Since Chief Farrell took charge of the county force in September 1995, 57 police employees facing misconduct charges have been fired, resigned or retired. Sixteen of those were charged with using excessive force, and 28 were charged with lying.

A University of Maryland study from 1995 through 1997 shows that the county's Administrative Hearing Board, which is like a police court, conducted 69 hearings, nearly one-fifth of all such hearings in Maryland.

The NAACP's Mrs. Hall said county police have been slow to respond to complaints, prompting the local chapter to help complainants.

She said the NAACP accepted more than 200 complaints in 18 months before she went to the Justice Department.

For various reasons, residents "won't always file a complaint with police," Mrs. Hall said.

She noted that up to 50 percent of county residents of who thought they were mistreated declined to file complaints, even after receiving guidance from the NAACP about proper reporting.

"If you know you have to wait a year or in excess of a year to get a response, that's not an incentive to go through with this," Mrs. Hall said. "I don't think the police department does it on purpose, but in fact it does serve as a deterrent."

County Executive Wayne K. Curry, to address complaints against the police department, formed a Community Task Force on Police Accountability, which met for its first weekly meeting last week.

The task force is composed of members of police, community, business, government and racial groups. It has been directed to determine whether the public's perception of policing matches reality.

"We have worked very hard in this administration to bring tools to law enforcement capabilities," Mr. Curry told the task force. "We need to know what are citizens' attitudes towards the police department… . What are the pervasive attitudes to our department?"

The task force is to report to the Curry administration on Oct. 1.

The risks in police work are very real, said task force member John A. "Rodney" Bartlett, president of the Fraternal Order of Police for Prince George's County and Maryland.

"I've been shot at. I've been hit. I've shot people," Officer Bartlett said.

He said that in incidents he witnessed in which police shot suspects, "All of them were justified."

"I have arrested several police officers for crimes they had done … [and] I'm not asking for the bad cop to go unpunished," Officer Bartlett said.

He suggested that a bad perception of county police may be a result of nationally publicized police-abuse cases in cities like Los Angeles and New York.

• Gerald Mizejewski contributed to this report.

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