By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 7:00 PM
The three Prince George's County police officers arrested as part of the sweeping federal investigation into corruption in the county represent only a fraction of those accused of wrongdoing, according to police officials and internal department records.
Those recent federal indictments charging two officers with protecting a black-market cigarette and alcohol operation and a third with drug dealing have cast an unwanted spotlight on the department.
According to internal police documents obtained by The Washington Post, at least 46 Prince George's officers are either suspended or assigned to administrative duties for misconduct or violations. In at least 19 of those cases, investigators have reason to think the officers committed a crime, according to police officials and the documents. Only three of these cases are known to have a direct relationship to the federal probe that led to the arrest this month of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
Prince George's Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said the figures show that he has been aggressive in disciplining employees who misstep - punishing wrongdoers harshly and speaking with reporters candidly. He did not have precise numbers but said the 46 cases marked an increase over previous years.
The effort seems to have won him broad community support, although it might have cost him points inside the department.
"If people want to . . . say that I'm not a good chief because I'm holding people accountable for misconduct and trying to eradicate the bad seeds out of this police department, I'll take that as a badge of honor," Hylton said. "I'm not backing down from that whatsoever."
At least nine others are suspected of criminal wrongdoing that includes sexual assault and theft, although it remains unclear how strong the evidence against them is, records show. In some cases, records show only that the officer is accused of unspecified "criminal misconduct."
Even many of the noncriminal allegations are serious. At least seven officers are either suspended or on administrative duty because of an allegation of excessive use of force, and six of them were recorded on tape, records show. Another officer did not properly search a suspect, and authorities found a gun on the suspect when he arrived at jail, according to officials and records.
Hylton said that since he took over as chief, he has revamped the police department's internal affairs division and started reviewing all major cases himself.
Recently, he initiated a review of off-duty jobs worked by county officers. He also has purchased computer software that will help him monitor discipline cases from start to finish. That will ensure, he said, that officers don't avoid discipline because of procedural errors or inaction by commanders.
Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police chapter, acknowledged that the number of officers suspended or on administrative duty "does sound very high," even for a force of about 1,500. But he said most of the allegations against the officers are unproved.
"Just like any other citizen, I think these officers are entitled to due process," he said. "Like any corporation, you may have a few bad apples, and we deal with them. . . . I think you have to allow the process to play out before you start condemning anyone."
Many officers have criticized Hylton, accusing him of making early judgments. They say it has negatively affected morale.
For example, Hylton fired an officer whose pursuit of a motorcyclist on the Capital Beltway sparked a fatal eight-car pileup. A judge had thrown out the criminal case against the officer, and a police trial board had recommended discipline short of firing, authorities said.
Similarly, when an officer moonlighting as a security guard was accused of punching a college student at a party at a Beltsville warehouse, Hylton suspended not just the officer accused of violence but also four others who might have witnessed something and not reported it.
In that case, Hylton said he wanted to send a "clear-cut message" about reporting misconduct.
But he acknowledged that he has acted more aggressively when it comes to police wrongdoing than other chiefs have, suspending or firing officers and offering his candid opinions to reporters. He said doing so maintains the department's "credibility" with residents - proving to them that the department can police itself.
"One or two individuals are not bigger than the entire police department, so you cannot allow one or two individuals to taint the entire integrity of this force," Hylton said. "It's not about popularity . . . it's about doing the right thing."
Internal department records show that Hylton has fired 18 officers or civilian employees for reasons that include drug use and sexual assault.
But sometimes, Canales said, Hylton has had to recall suspensions soon after he issued them.
Canales also said that the number of suspensions might create staffing shortages and that he wished internal affairs would move more quickly to resolve officers' cases. Hylton said the number of suspensions and administrative duty assignments would translate to about one officer being gone from each of the county's 60 patrol squads.
Hylton's discipline efforts have won him broad community support. Recently, a group calling itself the Coalition of Prince George's County Organizations and Leaders gathered outside County Executive-elect Rushern L. Baker III's transition headquarters in Largo to urge that Hylton be retained as police chief.
The coalition includes the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, Templeton Knolls Civic Association, the Prince George's County Taxi Worker Alliance and CASA of Maryland.
Its support came just days after federal authorities arrested three officers as part of a broad corruption probe in the county. Hylton was among the most vocal public critics of the officers on the day they were arrested - further proof, he said, that he is part of the solution, not the problem.
"Yes, we may have that list [of disciplined officers] that you see, but Roberto Hylton was not the person who was responsible for the conduct of these employees," Hylton said. "I was doing something about it."