Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson told leaders of the county's police union yesterday that he's seeking to set aside their differences and join forces to upgrade the department, which is under federal investigation for allegations of brutality.
In their first meeting since the union aggressively opposed his candidacy, Johnson (D) invited the leaders to air the concerns of rank-and-file officers and to participate in an outside consultant's review of the department that he has initiated.
Anthony Walker, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and a longtime critic of Johnson, characterized the nearly two-hour session as "very pleasant" and said it was a necessary first step toward forging a working relationship.
"It was clearly a different side of the Jack Johnson that you saw on the campaign trail, which just confuses you more," Walker said. "He showed an interest in working with the men and women of the police department. There's still a long way to go, but if there was a way to go, this was it."
As state's attorney, Johnson angered the union with his prosecution of police officers accused of misconduct. During the campaign, the union complained that Johnson brought the cases for political gain.
Walker accused Johnson of using the cases to exploit "the fears of minorities and past stereotypes, that this is the same agency from the 1970s." The department received numerous complaints of racism, harassment and brutality in the 1970s, particularly from black residents.
Walker said yesterday that he stands by his past statements, although he recognizes that the campaign is over. "I can't say I take back what I said about the man because I don't think I said anything that wasn't true," said Walker, who was joined at the meeting by his top deputy, Percy Austin.
At the same time, Walker said of Johnson: "He won. The man with the gold rules."
Johnson, for his part, also declined to revisit any of his previous statements about Walker and the union. During the campaign, Johnson accused the union's leaders of being out of step with most county residents.
Johnson said his main focus now is on the future.
"The most important thing is that we have an understanding that we have to work together," Johnson said. "The campaign is over, we're going forward."
Johnson and Walker agreed that they would meet again soon to review the concerns of rank-and-file officers, which include issues ranging from salaries to replacement of police cruisers. The union's contract with the county expires in June, and Walker said his members are looking for a raise of nearly 10 percent.
While Johnson said it's too early to talk specifics, he suggested that the struggling economy would limit his ability to boost salaries. "We're in an environment where people won't be looking at raises as much as holding on to what they have," he said.
Johnson and Walker agreed to talk further about the evaluation of the department being conducted by former New York City police commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, whom Johnson hired as a consultant.
Walker said he's unclear about Murphy's mission. While Johnson said the evaluation's scope is intentionally broad, he said he wants the police union to participate. "Their input is vital so that at the end of the day we can reach a consensus on implementing recommendations," Johnson said.
In their meeting, Walker said, Johnson indicated that he had not reached a decision on whether to retain Police Chief Gerald M. Wilson. "He's certainly not giving him a vote of confidence" by remaining silent about Wilson's fate, said Walker, who added that he has no preference for whether Johnson keeps or replaces Wilson.
Johnson said his transition committee has asked him to hold off on making any agency appointments until the middle of January. He added that he's still mulling his options.
As part of his evaluation of the department, Murphy in recent days has held extensive discussions with Wilson.
"He's young, he doesn't have a lot of experience," Murphy said of Wilson, who is 39. At the same time, Murphy cautioned, "I have a lot to learn yet. I'm still formulating my thinking."