About a dozen current and former Prince George’s County police officers filed a lawsuit Wednesday that alleges the top brass allowed discrimination to run rampant against Black and Latino officers and residents.
According to the 65-page suit filed in federal court in Greenbelt, White officers used several racial epithets, referring to minority residents as “coons,” “whores” and the N-word. They also called Black and Latino officers “baboon,” “ape” and “spics.”
“Our end goal here is to change the Prince George’s County Police Department’s policies and practices in order to prevent further disharmony within the department and within the community that it serves,” Joe Perez, a 20-year police veteran, said during a press conference at CASA De Maryland Multicultural Center in Langley Park. “We have truly lost confidence in our administration.”
Perez and the other five current and former officers at the press conference rest part of the blame with Police Chief Hank Stawinski and his leadership team.
Black officers are retaliated against when they speak out against the wrongdoings of their White counterparts, the officers said.
Sonya Zollihoffer, who has worked for the department for 18 years, said she encountered backlash after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a White training officer.
“That is when the retaliation began against me,” she said.
When asked after the press conference how does she continue to remain with the department, she said, “I left God handle it.”
The lawsuit also outlines how officers allegedly stole department funds and property.
“Chief Stawinski’s failure of leadership to address the discrimination and retaliation rampant within the department damages the ability of the PGPD and its officers to meet their obligations to the community they have pledged to serve and protect,” the complaint read.
The document also lists as defendants Christopher Murtha, deputy chief of police; Maj. Kathleen Mills, a commander of the Internal Affairs Division; and former Police Chief Mark Magaw, who currently works as the deputy chief administrative officer for public safety.
A department spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who retained Magaw as part of the public safety leadership, said such claims “will be taken seriously.”
“I haven’t heard what the allegations are, but there is a process involved,” Alsobrooks told reporters after a Washington Council of Governments meeting in northwest D.C. “As that process wraps itself up and if we learn there are discriminatory practices, we’ll address them.”
Meanwhile, the officers have several organizations supporting them in this legal battle such as the Washington Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the county NAACP and Progressive Maryland.
“Officers who speak out against misconduct and racism should be praised, not punished,” said Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the Maryland ACLU. “It is time for racial equity to be realized in the Prince George’s County Police Department, both for officers of color and for the Black and Latinx residents being policed. We hope the filing of this legal challenge could be the first step toward that goal.”