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Md. police chief reaches out to community for support

Video
The Prince George's County police have dropped charges against a University of Maryland student they claimed struck mounted Park Police officers and their horses after a basketball game in March. This video, shot by another student, shows police beating the student without apparent provocation.

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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why do so many Prince George's residents continue to support the county police -- despite ongoing controversies over shootings, false arrests and beatings, such as the one involving a University of Maryland student that was caught on cellphone video?

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A clue can be found in how Police Chief Roberto Hylton handled the most recent controversy. Within days of the video becoming public, he summoned to his headquarters in Landover community leaders representing tens of thousands of residents spread over 500 square miles. Just two years on the job, and he had pulled off a feat that few, if any, county officials could match.

He showed the video at the meeting and then, to give the audience a better idea of what his officers are up against, showed videos taken by police of Maryland students on a rampage in College Park after basketball games in 2002 and 2005.

According to participants that I interviewed, Hylton then opened the floor to questions and comments. By the time the meeting ended three hours later, the chief had received far more compliments than criticism.

"We felt good that he called us in," said Pat O'Neal, president of both the Windbrook Area Citizens Association in Clinton and the Police District 4 Citizens Advisory Council. "The police seem to be doing more listening."

No one excused the police behavior. Based on the video, most participants concluded that the student did nothing to provoke the attack -- although one of them wondered why, of all the people on the scene, the cellphone video just happened to be following this particular student as he skipped his way to the confrontation with police.

The county police internal affairs department, the states attorney's office and the FBI are investigating the matter.

Last year, the Justice Department ended nearly a decade of monitoring the county police for use of excessive force after concluding that the county had "developed a system of accountability" and had demonstrated a "commitment to constitutional policing and fairness." Such claims now appear premature at best.

And yet, Hylton was cheered when he made a boiler-plate declaration used by so many chiefs before him: that police brutality would not be tolerated. So why give him the benefit of the doubt?

"The incident involving the student at Maryland was appalling to most of us, but we will not blame the whole department for the bad judgments of a few," said LaVerne Williams, president of the Lewisdale Citizens Association near Hyattsville.

The beating did not generate the same level of outrage in Prince George's as it did in other places, in part because so many residents are sick of Maryland students and their postgame antics. There also was no racial component that could have inflamed the situation, because the student was white and the skin color of the officers was blocked by riot gear.

"I don't condone the actions of the officers we saw on the videotape, but I have seen those students riot, and it's frightening," said Morgan Gale, a restaurant owner and president of the Calvert Hills Citizens Association in College Park. "They're already primed from partying after a game, then they go to bars, and that's when anything can happen."

"When I saw the video of the police beating the student, I said, 'Oh, my God, this is horrible,'" O'Neal said. "At the same time, I'm thinking: I attended Howard University, and if we had congregated in the middle of the street and blocked traffic after a game, police would have arrested everybody, and we would have been expelled from school."

According to those who know him, Hylton understands that when residents get to know police officers on a first-name basis, they are less inclined to criticize an entire department for the misbehavior of individuals. Still, residents are exasperated with having to pay millions and millions of dollars to compensate victims of police brutality. And stopping the pattern of misconduct will require systemic changes in the department.

The message to Hylton from civic leaders: Be proactive. Don't just promise to punish abusive cops, but nip the problems in the bud.

Hylton had first brought the civic leaders together last year to announce that police and community cooperation had contributed to a steep drop in crime. The strategy appears to be paying political dividends as well.


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