By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 2, 2001
When John S. Farrell arrived as Prince George's County's new police chief in September 1995, he found an agency badly in need of modernization.
Computers were rare. The fingerprint-analysis machines barely worked. And the department continued to suffer from a reputation for beating, shooting and abusing residents.
"When I was hired to take the job, it was brought to my attention that the use of force was too high," Farrell said. "My goal is to have zero use of excessive force and zero use of deadly force."
Since then, the police department has bought hundreds of computers. It plans to install video cameras in patrol cars. It has built a DNA lab and made other technological improvements.
Farrell said he has tried just as hard to change his officers' behavior. Those results have been mixed.
Five years ago, he ordered officers to stop carrying blackjacks and wooden nightsticks, and instead equipped them with pepper spray and retractable metal batons in hopes of reducing injuries.
Last year, however, juries awarded more than $6 million in damages to people who had been mistreated by the police -- a record sum. Most of the lawsuits involved incidents that occurred after Farrell became chief.
In February 2000, after a 10-month stretch in which officers fatally shot five people and three others died while in police custody, Farrell ordered the entire force to go through retraining. The officers were taught the use of what he calls "nonlethal" weapons: pepper-spray guns, straitjackets and other devices designed to subdue people without killing them.
"The training efforts that were put in place were a recognition that we could do more," Farrell said. "The training is the key for us. We have put lots and lots of time and thinking into this."
But the beatings and questionable shootings have continued. Two more people have died while in police custody, including one man who was severely beaten after he was arrested for spitting on an officer.
Farrell points out that the number of police shootings has decreased since he became chief: 10 people were killed or wounded in 1995, compared with six last year.
But Prince George's officers have been more likely to shoot unarmed people during Farrell's tenure, The Washington Post found.
Since his hiring, 62 percent of the people shot by police were not carrying weapons. In the first half of the decade, only 36 percent of those shot were unarmed.
Federal scrutiny has increased during Farrell's watch. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would investigate the agency's canine unit after The Post disclosed dozens of cases in which people were maimed by police dogs.
In November, after police shot several unarmed people, the Justice Department said it would investigate the entire police department to determine whether there is a pattern of brutality or racial discrimination.
Although Farrell has retained the confidence of many county and state lawmakers, the department's troubles have increased pressure on the chief from all sides.
Leaders of the NAACP and some legislators have questioned whether Farrell has lost control of his officers. In April, the county chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police approved a vote of "no confidence" in Farrell's leadership by 92 percent to 8 percent.
The chief has made public appearances to defend his record. He uses them to recite statistics that support his contention that concern about police misconduct is overblown.
"I'll stack up what we're doing here against any other department in the country," he said. "These are not officers acting as criminals. They have a right to protect themselves."