Prince George’s County residents such as Kema Hutchinson-Harris said some of the adopted police department reform policies are either “watered-down” or should already be implemented.
Three policies would require new recruits to engage in community service, improve access and operations of body-worn cameras and incorporate comprehensive leadership and other forms of training.
“[County officials] are transforming the police department by giving them extra training [and] giving them extra leeway,” said Hutchinson-Harris of Clinton, whose son was assaulted by a Prince George’s officer in May 2017. “We really aren’t getting any accountability.”
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced nearly four dozen recommendations for the police department to implement such as mental health programs, officer training to prevent racial profiling and not hire officers with a history of misconduct or disciplinary problems.
“We are working to ensure that our police department respects the dignity and values of every single member of our community,” Alsobrooks said during a press conference Friday, Feb. 5 at the Wayne K. Curry Administration Building in Largo. “We want to give our police officers every chance to succeed.”
One person who attended the press conference, interim police chief Hector Velez, received a few compliments for his work to help implement the new changes.
“You’re the leader that this county police department needs at this time as you’ve worked to ensure the men and women under your leadership understand that you’re not going to accept anything less than their professional best,” said County Council chair Calvin Hawkins II (D-At-Large).
Alsobrooks said a decision could be made in the next few weeks on hiring a new police chief.
Dawn Dalton of Upper Marlboro said the new leader shouldn’t be Velez.
“Velez definitely shouldn’t be the chief. He is a part of the problem,” she said. “How do we really think we are going to get any change with the same bad apples?”
A similar remark has been echoed by former and current Black and Latino officers who filed a lawsuit in December 2018 against the county and police department for alleged racial and retaliatory practices within the department.
According to the report, more than 6,800 use-of-force incidents occurred between 2016 to 2019. Black civilians accounted for 86 percent and Latinos at 8 percent.
Those incidents became highlighted in a 94-page report released in June by Michael E. Graham, a former 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Former Police Chief Hank Stawinski resigned hours after the report became public. The next day, Alsobrooks announced the appointment of Hector as interim chief during a national search for a new leader.
After the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day last year, state and county officials such as Alsobrooks established a police reform task force in July to review police department strategies, hiring and use of force policies.
A few of the county police department’s 46 changes mirror what Maryland lawmakers are working on in Annapolis such as eliminating all military-style equipment, investment in mental health and restorative practices to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.
Another major reform approved will overhaul the department’s crisis response system that includes the construction of a mental health and addiction center. Alsobrooks earlier last year, which County Council later approved, to use $20 million from the police budget to build a facility focused on mental health.
Part of the crisis response also deals with enhancing mobile crisis teams. Tyrone Powers, a former Maryland state trooper and FBI agent who now runs a consulting firm in Baltimore, presented that recommendation in September after the police-involved shooting death of Leonard Shand in September 2019.
Although Powers reviewed the video footage and concluded “the officers were justified in deploying deadly force,” he said only one or two voices were needed to communicate with Shand to help calm him down.
Four of the recommendations omitted include traffic enforcement to the county’s Revenue Authority, not create similar programs already established through the Circuit Court’s diversion programs and removal of racial biases from gang and criminal registry that’s operated and controlled by the federal government. A fourth proposal to review funding for specialty units will be incorporated when reviewing the entire police budget.
In the meantime, Hutchinson-Harris, co-founder of Community Justice, said the county needs to make substantial changes such as firing police officers who’ve been accused of wrongdoing.
“These officers have been there for some 20 years,” she said. “Training after training after training and we still have the same problem.”