Justice Closes Pr. George's Police Review

County Executive Jack Johnson praised the department's efforts.
County Executive Jack Johnson praised the department's efforts. (Mark Gail - Twp)
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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Prince George's County Police Department has improved to the point that it no longer requires federal oversight, officials said yesterday, announcing the end of nearly a decade of scrutiny by the Justice Department over allegations of excessive force.

The police department installed video recorders in more than 600 cruisers, computerized its system for tracking problem officers and instituted a regimented internal review of departmental shootings to be released from oversight.

After a series of shootings early in the decade drew the attention of federal investigators, the county agreed to make the improvements under the watch of an independent monitor in 2004 to avoid legal action. At the time, FBI agents were also investigating four incidents in which suspects died after being injured in struggles with county police.

It took county police five years -- not the planned three -- to meet the requirements, but County Executive Jack B. Johnson yesterday praised the accomplishment nonetheless.

"We have rebuilt a police department that was once and now is considered a model for law enforcement," Johnson said at a news conference. "I want everyone to know that our commitment to improvement that we have made while under DOJ oversight will not wane simply because the department is no longer watching."

Johnson announced the development shortly before the County Council unanimously confirmed Roberto L. Hylton as the county's police chief. Hylton vowed to continue the reforms, keeping intact the compliance office that the department opened to fulfill the agreement. He said he would also add personnel to his office to review complaints and allegations of misconduct.

The decision by Justice means that all department-wide investigations into Prince George's police have ended. A separate Justice consent decree covered the department's canine unit, which was responsible for 800 biting incidents in a seven-year period ending in the mid-1990s. That oversight was lifted in 2007.

The FBI, however, is still investigating an incident last year in which county narcotics officers and the county sheriff's SWAT team raided the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights as part of a drug investigation, shooting and killing two dogs in the process. Authorities later cleared the mayor and his family of suspicion.

State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey is also reviewing at least two fatal shootings by county police last year. Officers killed eight people last year, more than in any year since before the county submitted to the agreements with Justice.

With the recent lifting of the monitoring in Prince George's, the only four law enforcement agencies in the country under monitoring by Justice's Civil Rights Division are in Los Angeles, Detroit, New Jersey and the District.

In a letter the county released yesterday, Shanetta Y. Cutler, chief of special litigation for the Civil Rights Division, said Prince George's police had "developed a system of accountability" and had demonstrated a "commitment to constitutional policing and fairness for all those who travel through its jurisdiction."

Cutler, however, noted that Prince George's remains out of compliance with one of the 67 requirements it submitted to as part of the oversight: The county still takes longer than 90 days to complete investigations into alleged misconduct by officers. Hylton said he would review the internal investigations and try to expedite the process.

And some of the county's reforms, such as the computerized system for tracking instances of use of force by officers, remain in their infancy, said Joe Wolfinger of the Alexandria Group, which monitored the county's progress for the Justice Department.

But he said he was impressed by the police department's openness to suggestions and recommendations for improvement.

"You don't want a past image to continue longer than is proven," Wolfinger said. "My sense is that this department has come a long way forward, but it will be a long time before that image is completely rectified."

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