A large majority of Prince George's County residents are satisfied with the job done by county police, but more than one-third -- particularly poor minorities -- still think the police use excessive force, a decades-old charge that continues to haunt the county.
The findings on perceptions of the police -- branded by numerous charges of police brutality over the years -- were the result of a survey conducted by the University of Maryland and requested by the county's police chief.
Although most of the survey respondents said the officers are a credit to the community and believe that the department should get more recognition, there is also a significant minority that still feels the police are unnecessarily brutal despite new police programs designed to meet such concerns.
Seventy-three percent of the survey's 505 participants said they were satisfied with the police department, and 82 percent of them said officers are a credit to the community.
On those two questions there was virtual agreement regardless of race, income or level of education. However, when asked whether the county police use excessive force, 48 percent of the nonwhite participants and 25 percent of the white participants said they did.
The survey termed the perception by lower-educated, lower-income and nonwhite residents that the department uses excessive force as "the most substantial problem area" for the 925-member force. Twenty-five percent of the officers are black. Nearly 45 percent of the population is black.
The belief that police brutality continues was heaviest in Seat Pleasant, a largely black area next to the Washington border. In Seat Pleasant 57 percent of those questioned said that police used excessive force. In the Hyattsville police district, an area with a sizable low-income population, 40 percent of the respondents said force was excessive.
The survey's findings came as no surprise to Richard (Steve) Brown, executive secretary of the county branch of the NAACP.
"That has been our contention all along," Brown said. "We have never said that police were brutal to white, middle-class and upper-class communities. I guess the question about the survey is, what's new?"
Survey participants who live in the Clinton police district, a predominantly white and middle-class area in the southern part of the county, rated police protection highest. Those living in Seat Pleasant gave the lowest ratings for police protection.
"A lot of that has to do with the perception of the police department by minorities," said Cpl. Bruce Gentile, a county police spokesman. "Clearly, there are more minorities in Seat Pleasant than in Clinton."
Gentile said it was significant that residents in Seat Pleasant had the highest rate of survey participants -- 90 percent -- who believe that county police are a credit to the community. "We still have to address that 57 percent in Seat Pleasant who have the perception that the department uses excessive force," he said.
In the past 3 1/2 years Police Chief Michael J. Flaherty has revamped the field training program for new officers, set up psychological screening for recruits and has mandated counseling for any officer alleged to have used excessive force.
In the most recent highly publicized brutality case, Cpl. Gordon D. Pinnell Jr. was found guilty in March by a police trial board of using excessive force when he struck a 15-year-old Oxon Hill youth three times with his nightstick while attempting to arrest him for littering outside a convenience store. Pinnell is white, and the youth, Sir Kaylin Edwards, is black.
Flaherty fined Pinnell $1,400 and suspended the officer for two months without pay. Pinnell has appealed the disciplinary action to the Circuit Court.
The study was conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Maryland in College Park between Nov. 13 and Dec. 11 and paid for by the Police Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization formed at the request of the police chief to help enhance the department's relationship with the community.