The Prince George's County Council, moving to dispel a historic mistrust between segments of the community and the police, approved legislation yesterday that creates a civilian oversight panel to review complaints filed against police officers.
Initially controversial, the final legislation met with little resistance yesterday from either community activists or the police union, a traditional opponent of citizen review of department activities.
County Executive Parris Glendening, who proposed the citizen oversight panel in February as one of several steps aimed at improving the image of the police department, hailed the council action yesterday as a victory.
"After the difficult summer last year, I became convinced that we had to do some extraordinary things to build the police-community relations," Glendening said. "This was one of them."
A commission appointed by Glendening to study the police department last year in the wake of the death of a Ghanaian citizen during an arrest found that segments of the black community believed the police department was not aggressive in investigating complaints against officers.
The state prosecutor's office ultimately determined that Ghanaian Gregory Habib had died accidentally when two officers fell on top of him during a fight. However, by then the outcry over Habib's death had grown to encompass years of hard feelings held by members of the black community toward police.
"There was a perception in the community that our police department has some problems in terms of fairness," said Del. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), a member of the commission. "This bill will go a long way toward making our police department a better one."
"I think we are indeed taking the step within our power to increase civilian participation in the police review process," said council Chairman Jo Ann T. Bell.
Darryl Jones, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 and an early opponent of the Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, said yesterday that the union supports the current plan, revised after months of negotiation between the police and the council.
"Our main objection was that the panel originally allowed for citizen participation in the disciplinary process," Jones said. "That is no longer the case. As long as it is oversight and review, we do not oppose it."
Council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr., the lone opposing vote on council, and former NAACP president Richard Steve Brown sounded the primary notes of dissent at the council hearing, arguing that the panel, while needed, falls short in its power to investigate police complaints.
"This panel is toothless and redundant," said Brown, a frequent critic of the police department. "It's a sham really."
The panel's seven members will be appointed by Glendening and paid $50 an hour. They will review investigations conducted by the police department's Internal Affairs Division and the Human Relations Commission, two bodies that currently examine complaints of excessive force, abusive language or harassment. The panel's recommendations, which are not binding, then will go to the police chief. The panel will not have power to subpoena witnesses or conduct its own investigation, nor will its recommendations be binding on the police chief.
Police union members had objected to several provisions in the original legislation, which they alleged violated the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a state law that sets procedures for handling citizens' complaints.