Seven suspended Prince George's officers returned to duty

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 7:02 PM

Seven suspended Prince George's County police officers were returned to full duty Wednesday night in what officials said was an effort to clear those who were wrongly accused and put back to work those whose conduct did not warrant keeping them off the streets.

The group includes a deputy chief whose wife had accused him of trying to punch her, an officer who failed to find a gun while searching a suspect and an officer who was accused of reacting inappropriately during a double shooting at a Bowie banquet hall. Also included are four of the officers who were working security at a Beltsville warehouse when an officer was accused of punching a college student.

Maj. Andrew Ellis, the department's public affairs commander, said the police department's executive review panel, which normally investigates shootings involving officers, decided to bring the officers back.

Interim Chief Mark Magaw had said the panel - composed of the department's deputy chiefs, an internal affairs representative, an officer from training and a county lawyer - will review the cases of the suspended officers.

The move drew immediate praise from the police union, whose president said many of the investigations have been completed and the officers cleared. But it also drew the ire of a community coalition that had worried that the recent ouster of police chief Roberto Hylton might reduce officer accountability.

Hakim Muhammad, president of the Kingswood Civic Association and a member of the broader Coalition of Prince George's County Organizations and Leaders, said he is "suspicious" because so many officers were returned to duty so quickly.

"I'm just really curious as to how thoroughly they've investigated the officers," he said. "Something's wrong with that picture."

Ellis said that even with the seven officers coming back, 39 remain suspended or on desk duty. The review panel looked at their cases, he said.

"This was not just Chief Magaw making a decision arbitrarily to put people back to duty based on what he thought," Ellis said. "This was a group of knowledgeable police employees . . . that made these recommendations."

The rationale for bringing officers back varied from case to case, he said.

The deputy chief accused of domestic violence was cleared in court months ago, and internal affairs investigators found no evidence that he did anything wrong, according to Ellis and court records.

The four officers involved in the Beltsville incident are still being investigated, but at worst, they committed "procedural violations," Ellis said. None was accused of punching the student. Hylton suspended them because they might have witnessed the incident and not reported it.

The rationale is the same in the case of the officer who did not act aggressively enough at the scene of a double shooting in Bowie. His case remains open, "but there's nothing to indicate serious wrongdoing on his part," Ellis said.

The officer who failed to find a gun on a suspect could still face "heavy sanctions," but they would fall short of firing, he said. For that reason, it did not make sense to keep him off the streets, he added. The gun was not discovered until the suspect arrived at the jail.

Vince Canales, president of the county's fraternal order of police, said the decision to restore the seven officers shows a "different mentality and mind-set."

"I think that you will probably find even more accountability" under Magaw, Canales said.

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