LAW ENFORCEMENT

Building Bridges One Handshake at a Time

Prince George's County Acting Police Chief Roberto Hylton took over Sept. 1.
Prince George's County Acting Police Chief Roberto Hylton took over Sept. 1. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

It can take new Prince George's County Acting Police Chief Roberto Hylton a while to reach his second-floor office in the morning. He shakes a lot of hands on the way, a gesture he also expects his officers to make toward residents on the street.

"That's how I was raised," said Hylton, recalling his humble upbringing in Panama. In Hylton's police department, however, a handshake is more than mere courtesy.

It's a symbol of the community policing and back-to-basics beat walking that Hylton, who is considered the front-runner to replace retiring Chief Melvin C. High, says the department needs in order to root out crime in its most dangerous neighborhoods.

"When you stop and you get out of the car and you walk, you get to see more things, you hear things, you develop relationships and people tell you things," Hylton said. "Our efforts are going to return officers into our communities and actually affect crime by identifying chronic problems."

In a county with a history of racial tension and police distrust, Hylton's handshakes might come at an important time. Old wounds were reopened this summer with a surge in police shootings, including one of an unarmed Latino man last month in Langley Park. Other high-profile incidents, such as the death in the county jail of Ronnie L. White, the suspect in the killing of a county police officer in June, have strained the department's relations with civil-rights and minority groups.

Hylton, 51, who took over on an interim basis Sept. 1, began facing those challenges head-on in his first hours on the job. He met with Latino leaders and members of the NAACP in his bare new office before unpacking a box, a move that June White-Dillard, the county NAACP chapter president, said she found "encouraging."

On Sept. 3, he showed up at the late-night Suitland crime scene where an 8-month-old boy was shot in his car seat. There, the 27-year veteran told residents he would not tolerate such violence, and he ordered dozens of officers to stay late and to aid in the investigation, an example Hylton's colleagues said mirrored his forceful approach as head of patrol since 2002.

"I told them our motto is going to be 'one team, one mission,' " Hylton said, describing his first meeting with his command staff. "Every member of our department will actually be moving toward our core mission, which is to suppress crime and build cooperation with our community."

Homicides and overall violent crime are down about 8 percent in the county this year, despite an increase in rapes and carjackings. The Justice Department for several years has been monitoring Prince George's police for excessive use of force.

Vernon Herron, the county's head of public safety, said he strongly believes the replacement for High, who retired last month, should come from within the department. Several commanders in the county are capable of doing the job, Herron said. But Hylton's actions so far have demonstrated that he has the experience to lead and "is a strong candidate" for the permanent post, Herron said.

Even before Hylton took over, he began working on a plan to transform policing in Prince George's. He placed calls to Sheriff Michael Jackson, the chief of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police and the head of the association representing all 23 municipal police departments in the county.

The calls began repairing relationships that had become strained, particularly after a July incident in which county narcotics officers and sheriff's deputies raided the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights without consulting the local police department. The mayor, whose two dogs were killed during the raid, and his family were quickly found innocent. Municipal police leaders said the raid highlighted a dangerous lack of coordination between county police and local departments.

With a county police force of about 1,500 officers covering nearly 500 square miles, Hylton believes Prince George's law enforcement agencies must work more closely together if officers are to have the additional time needed to walk beats and get to better know the communities they cover.

"My plan is to promote one law enforcement system within Prince George's County," Hylton said. "We all need to work together."

One of the ways that might happen first is by coordinating training, said Hylton and New Carrollton Police Chief David Rice, head of the county's municipal chiefs association. Rice praised Hylton for taking the initiative to contact him recently to discuss coordinating training.

"It's a brilliant idea. I take my hat off to him," Rice said. "Every [department] now trains on their own, does their own thing and because of that thinks 'my department's better than yours,' " Rice said. "We want to kill that little animosity and make everyone think as one unit."

For Hylton, the effort is one component of a larger move toward community policing, a philosophy he embraced as a sergeant in the early 1990s, when he helped the department pioneer efforts to reach out to at-risk youths and to improve relationships with communities in and around District Heights and Capitol Heights.

Some in the department have criticized High for making the Prince George's force more top heavy, with two assistant chiefs and additional layers of commanders working behind desks and not out in communities.

Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, said that he hasn't seen Hylton's specific plan but that his vision for community policing might be difficult in the county's spread-out suburban landscape.

"In some ways, it's what officers ought to be doing right now to cover their beats," Canales said. "But I am confident that Chief Hylton will look at the numbers, reduce some of the top heaviness and work to get more officers out in the districts."

Hylton says he believes community policing works best in the increasingly Latino communities in the northern part of the county, where he was an assistant commander and then commander of the 1st Police District, headquartered in Hyattsville, from 1996 to 2001. High promoted him to assistant chief in 2002.

One of Hylton's first moves was to name a new department spokesman, with whom Latino community members can communicate directly: Maj. Andrew Ellis, who is bilingual and worked under Hylton in Langley Park.

County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) said Hylton and his emphasis on community policing is exactly what is needed. "What he's talking about is what we hear all the time from our constituents," he said.


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