Prince George's County Police Chief Michael Flaherty, responding to an increase in citizen complaints alleging use of excessive force by county police, has instituted changes in department policy to deal with the problem.
Effective immediately, any officer who has a complaint filed against him or her will be required to talk with one of the department's three psychologists. Such conferences were already required of officers involved in "critical" incidents, nearly always involving use of a firearm. And new officers will be assigned throughout the county rather than in the highest crime areas of Seat Pleasant, Oxon Hill and Hyattsville.
Flaherty's announcement brought cautious support from the county chapter of the NAACP, whose president, Clement Martin, said last month that his office has seen "a significant" increase in complaints of police brutality coming in to the NAACP's office.
However, Tom Lennon, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, declared the number of excessive force complaints "meaningless," saying that the policy changes "won't be well received by the rank and file."
The county police department once was the target of a steady barrage of complaints of harassment and brutality, particularly from black residents during the early 1970s as the county's black population grew rapidly while the force remained largely white.
That negative reputation was greatly improved by the late 1970s, but officials said the complaints have increased more in recent months than in the previous nine years.
In one highly visible case, known as the "death squad" case, it was revealed in 1979 that during the '60s police detectives used informants to set up convenience-store robberies. Two men were fatally shot by police during such robberies in 1967. Police investigations, conducted after the alleged incidents were revealed in 1979, cleared all the officers involved.
By Oct. 11 this year, the department received 47 complaints alleging use of excessive force, according to Maj. Milton Crump, Flaherty's executive assistant, compared to 20 such complaints in 1984, 36 in 1983, 34 in 1982 and 28 in 1981.
The numbers were culled from a report prepared by the department's internal affairs unit, which periodically reviews its work on citizens' complaints, Crump said. The report had been prepared before the criticisms were made by the NAACP, he said.
"The chief tried to make it clear to everybody that he's on the men's side," Crump said. "There's nothing being done here that is disciplinary."
The decision to station new officers throughout the county was made after the report revealed that half of the 47 excessive force complaints filed this year were made against officers with three years' experience or less, Crump said.
Police departments traditionally assign officers with little experience to busy districts, to help them quickly gain street experience.
"But we looked at it and thought that maybe it is not such a good idea," Crump said. "You have a large number of very young officers concentrated in the same areas. So, we've decided to spread them around."
Lennon said he thinks Flaherty is reacting to pressure from the NAACP and implying that officers "have done something wrong."
"That's exactly the way the men see it," Lennon said. "Rather than looking at the number of complaints, they ought to look at the number sustained."
Few complaints alleging use of excessive force are sustained by the department's internal affairs unit. Between 1980 and 1984, only one of 140 brutality complaints were sustained. Three of the 47 brutality complaints filed this year have been sustained, Crump said.
The NAACP's Martin said yesterday he supports the moves by Flaherty "if they are going to cut down on the number of brutality complaints. If they don't, then we're right back where we started."
"The image of the Prince George's County Police Department has been a very negative one, and in my opinion, it was well deserved," said Fred Joseph, legal director for the county chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He said the department had made progress to change that image, including making the public aware of the complaint process. "The fact that there are more complaints may be an indication that there's more reason to believe that it will be favorably received," he said.
Harvey Goldstein, director of the department's psychological services unit, said the mandatory psychologist conferences will help officers to do their jobs better.
"There are no excuses for using excessive force," Goldstein said, "but there are a helluva lot of reasons for it."
Goldstein, whose office has served as a model for similar units in police departments elswhere in the country, said that several departments take similar "early-warning" approaches regarding officers who have had brutality complaints filed against them. But he said no other departments in the Washington area require officers who have been the object of such complaints to talk with psychologists.
Spokesmen for departments in the District, Alexandria and Arlington, for example, said that such a requirement would come only after an investigation of the complaint showed that the officer was in need of counseling.