- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Prince George’s County police officers often aren’t held accountable for wrongdoing because of poor leadership and lax discipline, according to a broad review of the force released yesterday.

The report, written by the county’s Office of Police Reform, uncovered a backlog of 300 internal discipline cases, 100 of which will likely have to be dismissed as statutes of limitations expire.

Numerous cases also were found in which officers and supervisors escaped internal punishment for breaking departmental rules, infractions that were often covered up by inflated evaluations.

The results of the half-year study come as the county negotiates a proposed consent order with the Department of Justice. The federal agency began probing the police department following accusations of excessive force by officers and the force’s canine unit.

That investigation continues, but Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson said he expects to meet with the Justice Department next month to discuss a draft of the consent order.

Mr. Johnson recently appointed Police Chief Melvin High, who took over a force that has struggled to overcome charges of misconduct by officers dating back several decades.

Chief High said yesterday he will reorganize the force, taking steps that include raising the office that oversees internal investigations of wrongdoing by officers to bureau status.

“The public lost faith in us,” Chief High said. “But, most importantly, we lost faith in ourselves.”

Community groups have long called on the department to hold officers accountable for their actions. Some were disappointed that county leaders said the reform process would take a long time.

“You can’t have this type of report and say it’s going to take a long time,” said Matthew Fogg of the People’s Coalition for Police Accountability. “Something needs to be done immediately.”

Similar studies of the county police and abuse charges have been done in recent decades, the last in 2000. Proposed changes included creating a civilian police review board and the use of nonlethal tools to subdue suspects.

But the report concludes the changes recommended by those reports have had limited success in changing the culture of the force.

It points to reports of extracted confessions, the conviction of former county canine officer Stephanie Mohr on civil rights charges and the fatal shooting of an unarmed suspect in Virginia by Cpl. Carlton Jones as signs that more needs to be done to bring accountability to the force.

Mr. Johnson, who ran on a platform of police reform last fall, appointed former New York City Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy in December to review the entire force. The county executive said this report will produce results where the others failed.

“This time it will be fixed, and it will be fixed correctly,” he said of the department’s problems.

Mr. Murphy found that the leadership structure has historically been divided, with a vague chain of command between the department and county executive’s office.

The department has also missed several deadlines for reporting crime statistics and pursuing discipline cases.

Mr. Murphy pointed to the case of Prince Jones Jr., shot in the back by Cpl. Jones after the undercover officer pursued him into Virginia on Sept. 1, 2000. Cpl. Jones was cleared of wrongdoing by federal, Fairfax County authorities and an internal police department review.

Mr. Murphy wouldn’t comment if he thought Cpl. Jones should have been exonerated internally, but he said the case has become a template for the problems of accountability in the department.

Staffing problems mean there aren’t enough officers on the force or on patrol, the report also concluded. The department is at 1,315 officers, short of its authorized force of 1,420.

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