By Avis Thomas-Lester and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Prince George's County Police Chief Melvin C. High, who has been at the helm of the 1,600-member department for five years, will resign next month, he announced yesterday.
High, 63, who came to the county from Norfolk and had been an assistant chief in the D.C. police department, will step down Aug. 31. He will be replaced on an interim basis by deputy chief Roberto Hylton, High's second in command, said sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information had not been made public.
High announced his resignation in an e-mail to command staff members yesterday. A copy of his resignation letter to County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) was attached.
"During the last five years you have given me a tremendous opportunity to serve and I want to thank you and the citizens and residents of Prince George's County for welcoming me as the Chief of Police and as a resident of this great county," High wrote to Johnson. "I am honored to have been entrusted with command of the Prince George's County Police Department and I applaud -- with great respect and admiration -- the men and women of this fine Department."
High did not mention post-resignation plans in the e-mail or the letter.
The announcement of High's resignation comes after months of speculation that he would step down this summer. Similar rumors circulated in 2006 and 2007. In recent weeks, tension had grown among top officers as county officials had begun considering whether High's successor would come from within the department.
Hylton, a Panama native who speaks fluent Spanish, is a former commander of District 1, with headquarters in Hyattsville. He is a strong contender for the permanent chief's job because of efforts to improve relations with the county's growing Latino community, sources said. He was often seen at crime scenes in the district and has translated interviews when no Spanish-speaking officers were present.
Hylton said yesterday that he had not been told whether he had been named interim chief.
"I can't verify that; no one has told me anything officially," Hylton said. "That will be up to the county executive."
Johnson declined to comment yesterday on High's successor. He credited High with rebuilding the police force's reputation in the community and bringing professionalism to the department.
"We now have a department where the community and the police work as one," Johnson said. "The confidence is there. It's a huge achievement and victory for the citizens."
High was appointed chief in February 2003, replacing Gerald Wilson. High, who retired as an assistant chief from the D.C. police in 1993, was police chief in Norfolk when Johnson picked him to head the Prince George's force.
The resignation comes as the department has faced several challenges, including the slaying last month of Richard S. Findley, who was posthumously promoted to sergeant, and last week's shooting of an armed robbery suspect by Cpl. William M. Peaco, who has been detailed from the department to serve as a driver for Johnson. High's decision also comes as statistics show modest reductions in some crimes. Homicides remain a problem, with 73 this year, compared with 80 for the same period a year ago.
William D. Missouri, chief administrative judge in Prince George's Circuit Court, credited High with choosing commanders who have come up through the ranks. "He's been a fantastic servant for the people of this county," Missouri said. "This county is going to miss his leadership."
Private investigator Sharon Weidenfeld said, however, that High did little to change the department's culture during his tenure.
"I think the police department was status quo while he was here," said Weidenfeld, who works for defense attorneys and lawyers who file police misconduct cases. She said gains made in reducing excessive force were attributable to consent decrees the police department entered into with the Justice Department in 2003 and 2004, in which the department was subject to oversight.
Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, which has advocated for a change in the department's leadership, was similarly unfazed about High's departure.
"We wish him luck in his future endeavors," he said, declining to comment.
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Henri E. Cauvin and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.