The Prince George's County Fraternal Order of Police, upset with Chief Michael Flaherty's discipline of an officer found guilty of using excessive force, came close to taking a vote of confidence last week on the chief's ability to run the department. But the group held off after taking its concerns to County Executive Parris Glendening.
After the meeting between FOP leadership and Glendening, Flaherty relented on disciplinary action against the officer in question, Robert Pearl, and allowed him to retain his rank of private first class.
Several other penalties, which officials said amounted to an income loss of about $6,000 for Pearl, remained.
Flaherty and Glendening said yesterday that the chief made the decision without instruction from the county executive. But both men emphasized that use of excessive force by officers will not be tolerated in the department.
The police trial board voted 2 to 1 in December to recommend that Pearl be fired. The board found Pearl guilty of using excessive force against a man who had been taken to the Hyattsville station by two University of Maryland police officers.
Flaherty said that during the trial board hearing the two University of Maryland officers testified that Pearl hit the man, who was not identified by police, in the head with a night stick "without physical provocation."
Flaherty said the victim, who did not require hospitalization, had shaken his finger in Pearl's face. The University of Maryland officers initiated the investigation.
Hitting the man "was out of character for Pearl," Flaherty said. "If he had had any other problems, any other complaints filed against him, I would have fired him."
Flaherty gave Pearl an option. The two-year officer could lose his job or accept -- without benefit of appeal -- a harsh punishment. It called for a two-month suspension without pay, a $1,400 fine, a reduction in rank from private first class to private and a four-month stint on light duty when he returned to the force.
Robert Sappington, head of the county FOP, said Flaherty's handling of Pearl's case brought "to a head" grumblings among officers who have been upset with Flaherty's "insensitivity toward the men and woman officers."
The dissatisfaction started in November, Sappington said, when Flaherty instituted a series of excessive-force policies in response to an increase in complaints against officers.
Sappington said the only other officer convicted by the trial board of using excessive force during Flaherty's tenure as chief was fined $500. "We just wanted Pearl's punishment to be in line with previous punishments," Sappington said. "We don't like officers using excessive force either. But there're other ways to get the point across than to make an example out of Pearl."
The FOP went to Glendening, Sappington said, after an FOP meeting last week in which a majority of the 100 officers present wanted to take a vote expressing their dissatisfaction with Flaherty's actions.
However, the vote was delayed after Sappington told the officers that the FOP executive board was meeting with Glendening.
After his meeting last week with FOP leadership, Glendening said, he directed the county's chief administrative officer "to have the chief meet with them and see what they can resolve."
Flaherty later met with Sappington and told him that he had decided against stripping Pearl of his rank and would allow Pearl to remain a private first class.