The Prince George's County police chief has rejected 85 percent of the recommendations made by an independent citizen board that reviews allegations of brutality and harassment by police officers, according to a report released yesterday.
Only three times in three years has the county's Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel been able to persuade Police Chief John S. Farrell to reverse the findings of internal department investigations into alleged police misconduct.
"It's a frustration," said Valerie J. Kaplan, the panel's chairman. "Clearly, we are coming at these things with a different perspective."
The issue of police misconduct is especially sensitive in Prince George's, where police make far more arrests and traffic stops than in any other suburb in the Washington region and where relations between the police and the public have long been troubled. Although tensions have subsided somewhat in recent years, allegations of police brutality were loud and frequent during the 1970s and 1980s, as the county changed from a majority white population to one that is now about 57 percent black.
In its first public report since April 1996, the panel disclosed that it reviewed 192 complaint investigations between 1996 and 1998. In about 25 percent of the cases, the panel disagreed with the findings of the police department's Internal Affairs Division and asked Farrell to adopt its recommendations instead, according to figures in the report.
The report shows that in the disputed cases--which involved a total of 71 separate allegations of police brutality, harassment or abusive language--Farrell took the panel's side only 11 times.
Even then, most of the instances in which Farrell agreed with the panel dealt with minor changes, such as by relabeling a complaint as "non-sustained" instead of "unfounded."
Indeed, there were only three instances in which Farrell's adoption of the panel's recommendations actually reversed the outcome of a case by upholding a citizen's complaint.
One of the cases involved a complaint filed in 1997 by a boy, whose name was not given, who said a police officer grabbed him by the neck and shoved him against a wall in a police interviewing room after the youth told the officer that "he did not like cops," according to the panel's report.
After a lengthy investigation, the Internal Affairs Division concluded that there was not enough evidence to uphold the complaint. But after the panel reviewed the case in 1998, it disagreed. Panel members noted that the boy's mother, a school nurse and a doctor all documented that the boy had suffered bruises and other injuries while in police custody.
Farrell agreed with the panel and upheld the complaint, though the panel's report does not reveal what punishment--if any--was meted out to the police officer. The panel's report provides only brief summaries of cases it has reviewed and does not list any names, specific dates or places.
In another case reversed by Farrell on the recommendation of the panel, a woman complained that an officer cursed at her and used abusive language after he arrested her in 1997 for attempting to cash a stolen check.
Although internal affairs investigators did not find enough evidence to uphold the woman's complaint, the panel disagreed, noting that another police officer and a second witness had backed up the allegation.
The third case dated from 1995 and also involved allegations of abusive language that were later upheld by Farrell.
Police officials declined to comment yesterday on the panel's report or its findings. Spokesman Royce D. Holloway said Farrell was out of town and hadn't had a chance to see the report.
"It would be inappropriate for either myself or the chief to comment until we can review it and analyze it," he said.
Prince George's and the District are the only jurisdictions in the Washington region 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) and paid $50 an hour to review cases.
Under county law, the panel is required to issue an annual report summarizing its work. But the last time the group published a report was in April 1996, and until yesterday it had refused to release any documents or records about its activities.
Panel members have come under criticism for operating in a semi-secret manner. The panel's number is not listed in the phone book. Its office in Largo is supposed to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it often closes during those hours without notice. Until recently, a directory in the lobby of its office building directed visitors to the wrong floor.
Kaplan has defended the panel's work and blamed the repeated missed deadlines for its reports on computer problems and high turnover among its members in 1996.
"We're not by our nature a highly visible organization," she said yesterday. Indeed, even though she said the panel completed its report on Wednesday and distribute copies to Curry and other county officials on Thursday, she waited until 4:30 p.m. on a Friday to hand it out to reporters.
Kaplan declined to comment on or interpret statistics in the report, including figures that show the total number of complaints filed against police dropped from 104 in 1994 to 59 in 1998.
She also did not offer any criticism of the police department, except to say that panel members were frustrated that Farrell did not agree with their recommendations more often.
"There is no question that the police department takes this process very seriously," she said. "They are doing a professional job, presumably, as they always have. But there is no process that can't be improved."
CAPTION: Prince George's County Police Chief John S. Farrell frustrates the board.