Efforts at Reform Repeatedly Stalled

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 1, 2001

A dozen years ago, frustration with decades of unfettered behavior by the Prince George's County police boiled over when an unarmed African immigrant named Gregory Habib was tackled and crushed to death by officers who had stopped his truck for blocking traffic in Langley Park.

A commission was named to suggest reforms, and a young black lawyer appointed to it offered this assessment of the police department:

"What brought us here, quite frankly, were substantial questions of brutality and racism."

The lawyer was Wayne K. Curry, and today he is the top elected official in the county, with ultimate authority over the police.

Although the 1989 death of Habib moved Parris N. Glendening -- then the county executive and now the governor -- to appoint the commission, the police department's reputation for brutality had been stitched into the community fabric for more than a generation.

In 1967, a special police unit that called itself "the Death Squad" fatally shot two men and wounded a third after staking out several stores to catch robbers.

The existence of the Death Squad, however, was not disclosed until 12 years later, when a former detective said the robberies were a setup. Police, he said, recruited informants to lure suspects into stores so officers could ambush them.

Authorities investigated. No one was punished or prosecuted.

By the time the Death Squad scandal broke, Prince George's was in the throes of a demographic rebirth, from a county where nine in 10 residents were white to a place where minorities now account for two-thirds of the population. With the police department slow to adjust to the new racial makeup of the citizenry it was supposed to protect, tensions flared.

In October 1969, more than 300 people marched on the Prince George's County Courthouse. They demanded the firing of a white police officer who had shot and killed an unarmed black man as he held a child in his arms.

Authorities took no action.

On Christmas Eve 1977, a white officer shot an unarmed black man in the back of the head after he allegedly shoplifted two $7 hams for his holiday dinner. A month later, a white officer killed a burglary suspect as he tried to wriggle out a window; again, the dead man was black, unarmed and shot from behind.

Under pressure, the police department adopted a policy designed to cut down on the use of guns by officers. Police Chief John W. Rhoads declared: "In my estimation, it precludes the shooting of any individual who is unarmed."

It did not.

In April 1984, an officer shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old black man during a traffic stop. Three months later, police fatally shot a 21-year-old man in the head; he, too, was unarmed and black.

As the 1980s wore on, the shootings continued unabated, as did complaints about excessive force. The decade ended with the Habib beating death, the appointment of the commission and charges filed against one of the officers involved.

The charges were dropped after an investigation by the state prosecutor, who exonerated the officers. Few of the commission's recommendations were adopted.

In 1993, a federal jury awarded Habib's family $1.9 million in civil damages.

Three months later, Archie Elliott III, a 24-year-old construction worker, was shot to death by two officers after he was frisked and placed in a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. The officers fired 22 times after they said he pulled a small handgun from his shorts.

News of Elliott's death did not go over well in Prince George's, especially in the neighborhoods inside the Beltway, where many shootings have occurred and where residents assumed the worst about the police.

Curry won election the following year. In July 1995, he announced that he had hired John S. Farrell, a 25-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department, as his new chief.

Farrell has sought to expand community policing programs started by his predecessor and to modernize the crime labs. But he has found it difficult to shed the department's reputation for rough tactics.

The racial makeup of the police department has changed with the county, but at a slower pace. Today, 53 percent of officers are white, 41 percent are black and the rest are Latino or Asian.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would investigate the county's canine squad for alleged civil rights violations in response to a Washington Post report about people who had been maimed by police dogs.

A year later, federal authorities said they would expand the investigation to the entire department.

Curry declined to be interviewed for this series. But in October, in the aftermath of several more fatal beatings and shootings by officers, he defended the police.

"People don't want no pansy police force," Curry said.

At the time, another commission was at work on how to improve police-community relations. It distributed a report in February, echoing many recommendations made a decade before.

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