County Won't Release Records on Many Cases

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Last year, after his officers killed two men in one weekend, Prince George's County Police Chief John S. Farrell promised a "vigorous investigation."

"The facts will come out," he said. "This scrutiny is necessary so the community understands that nothing will be left undone when it comes to investigating these cases."

But in Prince George's, many facts about police shootings are kept secret.

The secrecy is part of a broader practice by the police department to keep confidential any records that might provide details about police misconduct, disciplinary actions or cases in which officers used force to make arrests.

In reporting this series, The Washington Post conducted more than 500 interviews and relied on autopsy reports, workers' compensation files, FBI documents and several thousand pages of court records to find details about people who had been shot or beaten to death by Prince George's police since 1990.

Police officials denied or ignored numerous requests for records. When they did disclose information, it was often incomplete or misleading.

For example, The Post asked the police department for a list of all shootings in which officers had killed or wounded someone since 1990. Police officials provided the dates of shootings that had occurred since 1996 but disclosed only annual totals for years before that, saying more details were unavailable.

The department's list omitted some shootings, including the only two cases in the past decade in which county officers pleaded guilty to charges brought for firing their weapons.

Police officials also denied requests for documents that would reveal how many times officers had shot at people but missed.

In speeches and interviews, Farrell has understated the number of shootings by his agency. He also has cited conflicting figures about the number of police officers he has punished or fired for misconduct.

Prince George's lawyers denied requests by The Post for the department's investigative reports on shootings and in-custody deaths, stating that it would be "contrary to the public interest" to release the files.

County lawyers used the same justification to withhold many other records, including:

* Documents from public hearings held by the county Human Relations Commission to review citizen complaints against the police.

* Files detailing how much the county has paid to settle police brutality lawsuits.

* A roster listing the names, ranks and badge numbers of all county officers.

* Records of cases in which police used pepper spray, police dogs or physical force to subdue people.

Last fall, The Post sued Prince George's County to force it to disclose those records. The lawsuit is pending in Prince George's Circuit Court.

Since then, the county has rejected other requests from The Post for public records, including 911 tapes; discharge-of-firearm reports; and documents from police disciplinary hearings, which are open to the public.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company