The Prince George's County police department takes an average of 14 months to investigate complaints of police brutality or harassment--more than double the time needed four years ago, according to a recent report.
In 1998, the department's Internal Affairs Division completed 75 investigations of cases in which civilians alleged that officers used excessive force, harassment or abusive language. On average, the investigations took 427 days to complete before the results were turned over to the Prince George's Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, an independent review board that monitors allegations of police misconduct.
In contrast, the department needed only 191 days to investigate complaints in 1995, according to a report released by the oversight panel last month. The investigations have taken longer and longer each year since then, rising to 280 days in 1996 and 339 days on average in 1997, the report states.
But some critics questioned why it takes the police so long to carry out internal investigations and suggested that complaints may never be made because it will take several months--if not years--for the department to decide whether allegations have merit.
"If you know you have to wait a year or in excess of a year to get a response, that's not an incentive to go through with this," said Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP. "I don't think the police department does it on purpose, but in fact it does serve as a deterrent."
The oversight panel's chairman, Valerie J. Kaplan, of Laurel, declined to comment on why the police are taking more time to investigate complaints. In a recent interview, she said the department's internal affairs investigators seem to give more attention to complaints than in the past.
"Over time, the quality of the investigations has continued to improve," she said. "There is no question that this is taken very seriously in the police department. They are doing a professional job, presumably as they always have."
Police spokesman Royce D. Holloway said the department was still reviewing the panel's report and declined to comment last week. Police Chief John S. Farrell was out of town last week and could not be reached.
The Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel is a seven-member board appointed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Panel members review only the written record of investigations conducted by the police and do not have the authority to interview witnesses or officers. By law, the panel has 30 working days to review cases before passing along their recommendations to Farrell. The panel's recommendations are not binding for the police department.
The panel's report shows that Farrell rarely agrees with the recommendations. Only three times in three years has the panel been able to persuade Farrell to reverse the findings of internal department investigations into alleged police misconduct.
The report also shows that as the police department took longer to investigate cases, the number of formal complaints dropped, from 104 in 1994 to 59 in 1998.
Curry declined to be interviewed about the panel's report. But in a prepared statement, he said the reduction in complaints shows that police have made great strides in winning the community's trust.
"The report supports what I have been saying all along--that while police activity has increased during my term . . . the number of complaints alleging unnecessary force, harassment or abusive language has plummeted," he said in the statement. "It is virtually unheard of that these types of complaints would decrease while police activity would increase."
Although complaints declined between 1994 and 1998, they have risen sharply so far this year. Almost as many complaints were filed during the first six months of 1999 as for all of last year, according to documents obtained last month by The Washington Post under the Maryland Public Information Act.
Average number of days it takes the Prince George's police department to review and investigate complaints of excessive force, harassment and abusive language before a report is forwarded to the Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel.
1998: 427 days
1997: 339 days
1996: 280 days
1995: 191 days
* based on reports received each calendar year by the oversight panel.
SOURCE: Prince George's County Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel reports