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Black Leaders, Too, Should Be Accountable in Jail Death

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A young black man suspected in the death of a white police officer turns up dead in his jail cell, an apparent victim of strangulation. Echoes of racism and revenge killing reverberate through Prince George's County, which has a history of tension between black residents and white law enforcement officials. The suspicion among many blacks -- based on historical precedent -- is that a white jail guard killed Ronnie White, 19, to avenge the death of Prince George's Cpl. Richard S. Findley, 39, who was run down last week by a pickup truck allegedly driven by the accused.

But even if that proves true, the fact remains that the county's new black leadership campaigned on a pledge to change the system and, at the very least, put an end to vigilante justice by law enforcement officers.

"The leadership has to be held accountable, regardless of their race," June Dillard, president of the county chapter of the NAACP, told me yesterday. But on Monday night, Dillard appeared at a news conference with Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who is black, and voiced no criticism of his leadership.

In years past, the county's black activist groups, especially the NAACP, responded to civil rights violations by white elected officials with vehement protests. But times have changed. Prince George's County, a suburb that grew big on white flight from the District, is now roughly 75 percent black and increasingly urbane.

The results include some peculiar new challenges. In this case, a black-run county with a mismanaged jail must now answer for the death of a young black man with a criminal history that includes convictions for gun and drug possession and a known association with a black street gang called Curupt Mindz, which preys mostly on black people.

The jail where Ronnie White died has a white interim director, Mary Lou McDonough, appointed in June. But she works with a black public safety director, Vernon Herron, who answers to a black county executive. Many of the jail guards are black, too, as are the county police chief, Melvin C. High, the county sheriff, Michael Jackson (D), and the county state's attorney, Glenn F. Ivey (D).

Asked whether she was planning to organize a protest over the lack of security at the jail or the violation of White's civil rights, Dillard said: "We do not, as a matter of course, engage in the traditional kinds of protests and marching. We do it through direct interaction with whoever we feel should be held accountable. We do it through writing and by bringing issues to the attention of the media."

Elected officials from the county's good-ole days never got off the hook so easily.

In 1978, the NAACP marched on the Upper Marlboro offices of then-County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. (D), who is white, to protest mismanagement and police brutality. Two years later, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan (R), also white, was harshly criticized by the NAACP when he nominated a white candidate for police chief who had a history of conflicts with blacks. The NAACP successfully pressured the County Council to reject the nomination.

In 2000, when a black Howard University graduate was killed by a black Prince George's undercover officer in Fairfax County, then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who is black, took some heat. But most of the black community's ire was directed at Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan (D), who is white, for concluding that the officer had fired in self-defense.

A white culprit -- that's what really gets our black blood boiling.

At a news conference yesterday, Ivey was asked why the White family had not been able to see Ronnie White's body. In years past, concealing the body of a black suspect who died mysteriously in a jail cell or in police custody raised suspicions of a coverup.

But Ivey did not appear concerned about leaving such an impression.

"I don't know what the medical examiner's protocol is," he said, adding that the body would probably be made available to the family after an autopsy and toxicology report had been done.

Asked if he had ever seen a case like this before, Ivey said, "We have had deaths in custody before, but this is a unique one."

Asked if he had been contacted by the NAACP about investigating the violation of White's civil rights, he replied, "No, I have not."

Unique, indeed.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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