The Prince George's County executive can not order the county police chief to convene a trial board to consider disciplinary action against a police officer, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ruled.
In a 13-page decision the court said that the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights - which gives the chief of police sole authority to order a trial board - takes precedence over a county ordinance allowing the executive to order the chief to convene a trial board.
The judges ruled that Frank M. Cohee, a county police officer, did not have to go before a trial board in spite of an order issued by Kelly on Aug. 5, 1977. Cohee shot and killed a burglary suspect in 1975.
Kelly ordered a trial board after the county's Human Relations Commission recommended that he do so. The commission's Law Enforcement Practices Committee found probable cause for a trial board a little less then two years after a grand jury had cleared Cohee of criminal wrongdoing and the police had cleared him of administrative wrongdoing.
The judges ruled that the section of the law passed in 1976 by the County Council giving the commission the right to recommend to the county executive that the order the chief to convene a trial board cannot be enforced because of the state law.
Leonard I. Colodny, who was chairman of the commission's Law Enforcement Practices Committee at the time of the Cohee case attacked the decision.
"This wipes out civilian control of the police department," be said. "Supposedly Winfield Kelley was elected to run the county police department and now he's being told he can't order his chief to convene a trial board. If he wanted to fire the chief he couldn't do that either, only the chief could do it."
Benjamin R. Wolman, a lawyer who helped draft the policeman's bill of rights in 1974 and the man who defended Cohee, said the decision did not strip the commission of all its powers.
"They can still investigate when they get a complaint," he said. "And if they turn something up that hasn't been brought up before the chief could still decide to call for a trial board.
"But the county ordinance violated the state law by taking the disciplinary process out of the chief's hands. This puts it back in his hands."
Cohee was on administrative leave for slightly more than three months after the shooting. Police investigators found that Cohee and another officer had entered a Palmer Park house at about 5:30 on the morning of April 30 after receiving a report of a burglary in progress.
Hearing a noise in the closet, both officers took cover behind furniture. Cohee told investigators he saw a hand come around the closet door holding "a shiny object." He said he fired one shot, aiming low.
According to investigators, Michael A. Washington, 17, had grouched down and was fatally wounded in the chest. A butcher knife was found in the closet with the body.
On June 30, 1977, a little less than two years after Cohee returned to active duty, the law enforcement practices committee, after receiving a complaint from Washington's mother, Virginia Washington, held a closed hearing on the case. Three weeks later thee full Human Relations Commission voted to ask Kelly to order a trial board.
When Kelly did so, Wolman successfully filed for an immediate injunction against the trial board in Circuit Court. Last Oct. 19, Circuit Court Judg James F. Couch granted a permanent injunction against the hearing. It was that injunction that the county was appealing in Court of Special Appeals.