Last September, a 29-year-old prisoner named Elmer Clayton Newman Jr. was found unconscious in his Prince George’s County holding cell. He had been jailed after an altercation with police and sustained neck and chest injuries. He also had cocaine in his system. The state medical examiner said some of his injuries were consistent with being choked and subsequently ruled his death a homicide. The grand jury that investigated the death declined to issue indictments in connection with the case. Nonetheless, criminal charges may be brought against the officers in the Newman case, once again highlighting the strained relations between Prince George’s County Police and blacks.
The NAACP has long been concerned about police brutality, and the organization recently succeeded in urging the U.S. Justice Department to probe the Newman case. That a federal probe is under way should not be taken lightly considering the county department is regularly accused of excessive force, abuse of powers, racial profiling and civil rights violations, especially involving blacks. Nationally, Justice Department officials investigate about 3,000 civil rights cases a year, and about 60 of them are sent to grand juries for review. A recent probe in Montgomery County, sparked by complaints of racial profiling, found no pattern of brutality. In Prince George’s, though, most allegations against county police officers involve serious injury or death.
The federal probe, which may be broadened beyond the Newman case, comes at a particularly troubling time for county police. Earlier this month, two federal juries ruled against officers in separate civil cases involving excessive force. One of those cases was brought by a black resident and the other by a Salvadoran immigrant who had been handcuffed to a utility pole. In both instances, the plaintiffs won monetary awards. The Newman family wants the same. On Tuesday the family filed a lawsuit against the county and the seven officers in the case. The family is asking for $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The family’s suit was filed after the Prince George’s County state’s attorney, Jack B. Johnson, said police silence prevented him from leveling criminal charges against the officers, and after County Executive Wayne Curry convened a task force to review police-community relations.
The relationship between blacks and Prince George’s police is a long and ugly one. (The 1978 case of Terrence Johnson, a black teen-ager who killed two white cops while in police custody, is perhaps the most notorious.) County officers no more appreciate the arbitrary perception that they routinely brutalize law-abiding black citizens than black citizens like being stereotyped as criminals. Unfortunately, this latest case ensures that, however the federal probe ends, views on both sides aren’t likely to change anytime soon.