Allegations of police misconduct are being lodged at a record pace in Prince George's County this year, contradicting assertions by county officials that the number has declined, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The Prince George's Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel--which is responsible for monitoring allegations of police misconduct--is required by law to issue an annual report of complaints but has not done so since April 1996. In the meantime, it has refused to release documents or statistics reflecting its handling of complaints.
The panel has said that complaints have declined steadily since 1995, the last year for which figures are available. That assertion echoes statements by the Prince George's Police Department that complaints have waned in recent years.
But the panel's own documents, obtained by The Post under the Maryland Freedom of Information Act, show that misconduct complaints have risen sharply so far this year.
During the first six months of 1999, 54 people filed complaints alleging police harassment, abusive language or excessive force, the records show. By comparison, 57 such complaints were lodged during all of 1998.
In an interview with The Post in late July, the panel's chairman, Valerie J. Kaplan, of Laurel, said the number of complaints had dropped since the panel's last report in 1996, although she declined to be more specific.
But in a July 13 letter to Fred Thomas, Prince George's director of public safety, Kaplan sounded a different note, pointing out that complaints had in fact climbed steeply in 1999.
"In addition, as of June 23, 1999, we have received from IAD [the police department's Internal Affairs Division] fifty (50) 1999-numbered complaints," Kaplan wrote. "By comparison, 57 such complaints were received in all of 1998."
By the end of June, the number of 1999 complaints had risen to 54, records show.
When asked to explain the discrepancy, Kaplan said yesterday that she had been reluctant to discuss the 1999 numbers because she said it is difficult to draw conclusions from partial-year figures.
"I didn't want to discuss what happened so far this year," she said. "Who knows what is going to happen in the next two quarters? The variance between quarters can be quite random."
Even so, if complaints are filed at the same rate during the second half of 1999, the annual total would be 108--the most since the panel was formed in 1990.
Prince George's and the District are the only jurisdictions in the area where a citizen commission has the authority to review allegations of police misconduct.
The Prince George's panel is composed of seven members appointed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Each is paid $50 an hour. The group does not investigate complaints but has the power to review the written record of investigations conducted by the police department.
Kaplan said the group is assembling its overdue public report and expects to release it by the end of the month. "The Lord willing and the creek don't rise, we're close," she said.
But she refused to disclose any statistics or other information about the panel's work before then. She has blamed poor record keeping and computer problems for the panel's inability to produce a report on time.
In an interview yesterday, Curry said he has ordered the panel to issue a public report as soon as possible.
"I obviously am dissatisfied that the required annual reports have not been released and have made directives that the problem be immediately overcome," he said. "I'm certainly not going to defend their failure to issue an annual report."
But Curry said he has "enormous confidence" in the panel's members, adding that he didn't think public confidence in their oversight role had been damaged. "The tenor of police-community relations in Prince George's County is better than it has ever been," he said.
Police officials acknowledged yesterday that they also have seen a sharp increase in misconduct complaints, although they said it was difficult to match their figures with those kept by the panel.
During the first six months of 1999, the department logged 40 complaints of excessive force, compared with 16 such complaints during the same period in 1998, said police spokesman Royce D. Holloway.
Police Chief John S. Farrell has boasted of a sharp drop in police misconduct allegations in recent years, and statistics supplied by the department show that complaints did decline steadily from 1993 to 1998.
Holloway said the numbers have risen again this year partly because the department has made it much easier for the public to file complaints. He also said that national media attention on police brutality cases in other states has made Prince George's residents more likely to fill out complaint forms.
"The chief has come out and said, 'Please, if you feel like there's been wrongdoing on the part of a police officer, file a complaint, not a lawsuit,' " Holloway said.