By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 8:45 PM
In the three weeks since Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson was handcuffed by federal agents, plenty of tongues have wagged and plenty of ink has been spilled about the county's dirty politicians.
Less often mentioned: its dirty cops.
Sadly, law enforcement wrongdoing has long been par for the course in Prince George's, with its long history of police corruption and brutality. So when the feds fingered three county cops on extortion, drug and gun charges, you might forgive the good people of Prince George's for reacting with something less than shock and outrage.
And so while incoming county executive Rushern L. Baker ran on a platform emphasizing jobs, economic development, and education, it's clear that after his inauguration Monday, the county's law enforcement still demands his attention.
Baker admitted as much this week. On Wednesday, Prince George's County Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton was given his walking papers in a rather unorthodox manner: State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey told a TBD TV news anchor that it was his "understanding" that Hylton would be replaced come Monday.
Baker would not confirm Ivey's intimation - never mind that Baker and Ivey are best buds going way back - but Hylton's ouster was confirmed by The Washington Post by day's end.
The swift dispatch surprised some and angered those who had rallied to Hylton's defense after Baker's victory. As ironic as it might seem now, the Prince George's Police Department improved in many ways under Johnson's watch. He brought in a sorely needed outsider, Melvin C. High, to take over a department amid a federal investigation into its astronomical level of police-committed violence. High reached an agreement with the Justice Department to end the probe and took real steps toward developing meaningful outreach to the community.
And under Hylton, promoted after High retired in 2008, violent crime has dropped to levels not seen since the mid-1970s. Community policing efforts have flourished; Hylton, a Spanish-speaking native Panamanian, developed especially close ties with the county's Hispanic population.
But with the arrests earlier this month of Sgt. Richard Delabrer, Cpl. Chong Chin Kim and Officer Sinisa Simic - three days after Johnson's shocking arrest - the worst perceptions about the Prince George's police persist.
Hylton's difficulties started earlier, of course. A videotape showed three officers beating University of Maryland students in College Park after a March basketball game, prompting an FBI investigation. A federal investigation implicated five veteran officers in a scheme to protect a drug dealers' gambling ring. And after detailed allegations of widespread cheating at the county police academy surfaced earlier this year, Hylton dismissed them as "no sinister plot."
And memories linger of more high-profile incidents that predated Hylton's time atop the department: the jailhouse killing of Ronnie L. White, a suspect in the 2008 killing of a county police officer; the 2007 murder of a deliveryman by former Cpl. Keith Washington, a Johnson confidante.
Earlier this week, Hylton did his best to save his hide, discussing with The Post's Matt Zapotosky his internal efforts to snuff out police corruption - touting the fact that at least 46 Prince George's officers are either suspended or on desk duty for various types of misconduct.
It's the rare police chief that feels compelled to highlight his unusually large stable of lousy officers.
But in Prince George's, acknowledging that you have a police problem is the first step in the battle. Unfortunately, the admission came two years into Hylton's tenure.
On the campaign trail earlier this year, the state of the county's police force took a back seat to bread-and-butter economic and education concerns. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that crime in the county has been on the decline - putting the issue on the back burner while people hurt for jobs.
But now that Baker is about the take the hot seat, public safety matters have heated up.
An ad hoc group called the "Coalition of Prince George's County Organizations and Leaders" rallied for a second time Thursday to ask Baker to keep Hylton, who is known for his presence at community events and his strident words when faced with police wrongdoing.
Hakim Muhammad, one of the group's leaders, said he was "quite outraged" at Baker's power move and praised Hylton for taking action against those 46 officers.
But the other outrage Baker needs to think about comes from residents who have put up with a tarnished police force for too long. He has promised a national search for Hylton's replacement.