The Justice Department has completed its preliminary review of alleged racial discrimination by the Montgomery County police department and has begun negotiating with senior county officials who hope to correct problems to avoid federal sanctions.
Bill Lann Lee, assistant attorney general for civil rights, and Lynne Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland, have briefed top county officials on the initial results of the three-year review.
But county officials, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Police Chief Charles A. Moose, declined yesterday to discuss those findings despite months of calling on federal officials to bring the investigation to a close.
It is unclear if the findings of the investigation will ever be made public. Justice officials said the findings usually are revealed only when negotiations with local officials falter over how to address issues raised by an investigation and the findings become the basis for a civil lawsuit or other sanctions.
Sources familiar with the civil rights review said the discussions with Montgomery center on a list of federal recommendations to improve the troubled department. And the sources said some of the suggested reforms already have been made by Moose, including requiring more cultural training for recruits and changing the citizen complaint process so all complaints are funneled through the Office of Internal Affairs.
Currently, only complaints deemed serious by police officials in the local districts are forwarded to the Office of Internal Affairs for investigation, and police officials have been unable to provide an estimate of how many complaints are dealt with on the local station level or even discarded. Beginning Monday, all complaints will go to internal affairs first.
"We're still working to see if it's possible to reach a conciliation agreement," said a Justice Department official familiar with the review. The police department "has begun to initiate reforms while our investigation was continuing. That's a positive thing. We're very glad to see that."
A final report could be presented to county officials next month. Duncan said that report will be a Justice Department document that would be made public only with the department's approval.
"If they ask my advice, I will tell them the final report should be a public document," he said.
But the secretive process has alarmed county officials and civic activists, who say the department will never escape the allegations of racial harassment if the findings remain private. County Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) yesterday called on Duncan to make the findings public immediately as a way of wrapping up the review.
"You've got a divided community [over these allegations] right now," Leggett said. "A clear record would either undermine the charges or buttress them. Because this has taken so long, the public is due a thorough explanation."
The negotiations between the Department of Justice and Montgomery County mark the next phase in an inquiry Duncan once described as a "dark cloud" over the 1,032-officer department. The review stemmed from citizen complaints of racial discrimination, filed with Justice by the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP. Linda Plummer, president of the chapter, said her group referred more than 300 citizen complaints to the Justice Department during the past three years.
The alleged harassment of blacks by county police officers, particularly during traffic stops--and the county's tepid response to complaints of brutality and discrimination--are at the center of the review. The allegations also contributed to Carol Mehrling's departure as chief and low morale among many rank-and-file officers.
In an interview yesterday, Moose said he has spoken with Justice officials numerous times since he became chief in August and that investigators are still requesting documents. He declined to discuss the conversations, saying it "would not be appropriate" to disclose the list of recommended ways to alleviate problems within the police department.
"This is an effort to see what's best for this department and this community," Moose said. "Talking prematurely [to the press] doesn't gain us anything."
Duncan said he was "pleased they are getting much closer to concluding their report because we've been asking for this for sometime. They could always sue depending on what they find. But we've always said tell us your concerns and we will address them."
Plummer said Justice officials met last week with members of the local NAACP's criminal justice committee but did not share their findings.
But civic activists warned yesterday that the findings should be revealed to a suspicious public regardless of whether the negotiations are successful.
"I think the sooner it's released, the better it'll be for everyone," said Roscoe Nix, a former NAACP president. "Rumors can do harm. It would be better for everyone concerned, the police department and the NAACP."
Staff writer Steven Gray contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Executive Duncan favors a public report.
CAPTION: Police Chief Moose has begun reforms.
CAPTION: County Council President Isiah Leggett wants the Justice report to be made public. Linda Plummer, of the Montgomery County NAACP, said Justice officials met last week with the local NAACP's criminal justice committee