A prosecutor. A public defender. A community activist. Law enforcement personnel.
They stood alongside each other outside the Prince George’s County Circuit Courthouse with a simple message: stand together to help reform the police department.
“The fact that myself, a prosecutor, and the public defender have come together to say there are things that we must agree on. We must work on together to fix this system,” said county State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy. “I’m grateful that we have people who have the courage to point out where there are inequities and prejudices … in our system. If we don’t take them head-on and don’t acknowledge them, how do we fix them?”
Trying to restore, repair and restructure a police department with internal strife isn’t going to be easy nor quick.
The hope comes with the announcement Friday of the interim police chief, Hector Velez, a Latino native of New York City’s Brooklyn borough and 26-year veteran with the department. He served as second-in-command behind his former boss, Hank Stawinski.
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said a national search will be conducted to hire a permanent chief.
Stawinki, who served in the department of more 1,600 officers and civilians since 1992, resigned hours after a nearly 100-page report released last week highlighted more than two dozen alleged incidents of systematic racism within the department.
For instance, Cpl. Richard Torres, a Latino, was transferred from the department’s investigation unit down to the patrol bureau after he complained about a white sergeant who texted “NECA,” a derogatory term about a Black resident and a suspect.
Since 2016, Lt. Thomas Boone, who’s Black, made several complaints to supervisors that include former Police Chief Hank Stawinski about racially insensitive and offensive pictures, inappropriate language and unfair hiring practice. In October 2018, a superior officer informed Boone he would be transferred to the property division, but instead reassigned to the patrol bureau.
Torres, Boone and other Black and Latino officers filed a lawsuit in December 2018 against the department that remains ongoing. The report released Thursday, June 18 and written by Michael E. Graham, a former 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, coincides with the suit and a legal brief filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
“The department’s policies for handling complaints about racial harassment and discrimination are inadequate,” Graham wrote. “There are practices within the department that result in serious allegations of misconduct being treated differently when the charges are made against white officers as opposed to officers of color. In addition, the current leadership of the department appears to have made a deliberate choice not to track or monitor its performance concerning these matters.”
Alsobrooks said the report had no bearing on the departure of Stawinski, whom she worked with on various public safety projects and programs for more than 10 years.
“This is a decision I arrived at with much thought and it did not have anything to do with the report,” she said. “He’s a native-born Prince Georgian. We certainly appreciate his work, his service and his sacrifice of both he and his family. He has served this department and he served our community well and served it with great integrity.”
Future Changes, Recommendations
Alsobrooks, who declined to comment on the report and current suit, said she understands there are certain parts of the broken that need an overhaul.
One pledge she already made is to allocate $20 million from the police department’s capital budget for a safety training facility to build a structure to help officers and residents deal with mental health and substance. It would be presented to County Council and added to existing bond legislation to place on the November ballot.
“Whatever we find that is broken, I assure you that I will fix it,” she said.
Velez said a comprehensive view of the department by “someone on the outside” to analyze strengths and weaknesses.
“Once we have that analysis, then we can move forward from there,” he said. “At this point, it is analyzing where we are as an agency today.”
Boone, a 22-year veteran with the police department, said a recommendation would be to hire officers who live in Prince George’s.
During a June 16 county council briefing that included Stawinski, it was revealed two officers resided in Pennsylvania.
“When you live here, you shop here and see the people on a regular basis like I do, you have a little bit the respect from people and they’re not just calling you officer. They knew who you are and keep it moving.”
Collaboration between the police department and other county agencies in terms of releasing information on police misconduct cases must also be improved.
Braveboy and Keith Lotridge, a district public defender for the county, acknowledged the rare occurrence to receive information on cases that involve officers. The Graham report, which was redacted by the county because of confidentiality, hasn’t been provided to the state’s attorney’s office as of Friday.
One main reason rest with the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, created by state law to provide officers under criminal investigation the right to an attorney and other Constitutional rights regular citizens received. However, critics say the law known as LEOBR provides a lack of transparency and allows officers several days to receive a formal interview and investigation after certain incidents such as police-involved shootings.
State lawmakers are working on police reform to present possible legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, but Braveboy said she’ll work Alsobrooks and other county agencies to make more records transparent.
“We will work … to try to reach a consensus on information we will be able to acquire so we can effectively prosecute with integrity,” she said. “We cannot protect cases. We must protect justice and justice requires transparency.”
Bob Ross, president of the county NAACP branch, said the appointment of Velez represents a new chapter in the county. Ross praised Alsobrooks in seeking to bring community leaders and other residents to assist in public service changes, which includes her plan to create a work group to examine the policies and practices of the police department.
“All about healing, about transparency and how do we build a better Prince George’s County. That is our goal,” he said. “I would just love to move forward and not talking about what had happened. That’s done and over with. This is a new day in Prince George’s County.”