- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Justice Department will monitor the Prince George’s County Police Department for three years under agreements the two signed yesterday, meant to ensure the troubled department reforms its canine unit and stamps out officer misconduct.

The agreements cap a lengthy top-to-bottom federal probe of the department and a separate review of the canine unit. For years, both have been the subject of charges of excessive force by officers, including the fatal shootings of several unarmed suspects.

“These agreements will help lift a cloud that has hung over this department for many years,” said R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The agreement in the department probe includes requirements that the department draft a clear use-of-force policy, change its policy on the use of pepper spray, create a board to review all firearms discharges and thoroughly investigate charges of officer misconduct.

For the canine unit, the county and Justice Department signed a consent decree that requires police to review every dog bite and train dogs to bark at suspects to keep them at bay instead of biting them.

The Justice Department will monitor whether the police force abides by the canine unit consent decree, a rare step for the federal agency, Mr. Acosta said. An outside monitor will keep track of the larger agreement on the entire department. Both will file quarterly progress reports.

The county acknowledges no wrongdoing in the either agreement.

The department already has implemented some of the requirements, Police Chief Melvin C. High said, such as the “guard and bark” policy. But he said there are many other changes the department must make.

“I believe we have accomplished a great deal, but clearly there is much left to do,” he said.

The nearly four-year Justice Department probe has spanned the terms of three county police chiefs and two county executives, both of which proposed their own reform measures in the past several years.

The investigation began with the canine unit in 1999 after reports that officers set dogs on suspects for no reason. One former canine officer is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for letting her dog attack an unarmed homeless man.

The second, larger probe was begun in October 2000 after an undercover Prince George’s officer shot an unarmed Howard University student in the back after following him to Northern Virginia. The officer was cleared by an internal review and Virginia prosecutors, but the student’s family has filed a $40 million lawsuit.

An internal review completed last summer concluded that officers often weren’t held accountable for wrongdoing because of poor leadership and lax discipline. At the time, the department had a backlog of 300 discipline cases.

Chief High reshuffled the department in response to the report, which included raising the office that oversees internal investigations of wrongdoing by officers to bureau status.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who took office in 2002 after campaigning on a platform of police reform, said the agreements are a “milestone” for the county.

The chairman of the county’s Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, which reviews complaints about officer conduct made by residents, also applauded the Justice Department for coming up with concrete solutions, not just dwelling on abuses.

“I think it is a great step forward,” said oversight panel chairwoman Eileen Thomas. “There’s been wrongdoing for years. I’m glad the Department of Justice said, ‘We’re not looking back.’”

Despite the changes, the department is still beset by accusations of excessive force. Over the past three years, the department has paid out nearly $10 million in damages and jury awards to settle police misconduct lawsuits.

An officer also is being investigated by a grand jury on charges of beating a handcuffed suspect in October, an incident recorded by a video camera mounted on a police cruiser.

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