A July 30 Metro article reported incorrect arrest numbers for the Prince George's County Police Department. The department made 13,692 arrests in 2000, 10,513 in 2002 and 9,192 last year. (Published 8/3/2005)
Prince George's Police Chief Melvin C. High and his rank-and-file officers publicly clashed yesterday over the county's escalating violence, with the police union saying the chief's crime-fighting plan has failed and High responding that his department's biggest problem is unproductive officers.
"Every member of this police department and every member of this community is ready for a new direction," Percy Alston, president of Police Lodge 89, said in his most pointed criticism of the chief. "Minimizing what is occurring or pretending that it does not exist will no longer be acceptable. . . . We deserve and must demand change."
Less than an hour later, High and County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) held a rebuttal news conference, defending their crime-fighting plan and lashing out at the department. High said 10 percent of police are doing unacceptable work, with 60 to 175 officers having no recent record of making arrests, issuing tickets or responding to calls. The agency's problem is not the strategy but the officers, the chief said.
"The time for less than hard work is over. The time for just showing up is over," High said. "When officers go out there and do the job I ask them to, they will have my support."
Johnson, standing next to him, added, "Chief, you said what needed to be said." But the union says High's numbers are misleading.
The public feuding between the officers and the county's top law enforcement officials comes as Prince George's grapples with a growing problem with violent crime. Homicides have increased 26 percent, rapes by 22 percent and carjackings by 45 percent, and robberies have surged 123 percent compared with this time last year.
Yesterday's dueling news conferences were a dramatic airing of long-simmering tension between the Johnson administration and police officers. Johnson ran three years ago on a platform of reforming the police department, which has a history of abuses and civil rights violations and is currently under watch by the Department of Justice.
As state's attorney from 1994 through 2002, Johnson prosecuted 11 officers accused of misconduct but won no convictions, a statistic that still bothers officers who felt the department was targeted when Johnson was the county's top prosecutor. As county executive, Johnson has vowed to beef up the department and hire 200 officers a year for the next six years.
The number of officers in the department is also up for debate. The union says the force has 1,257 members, but the county tallies 1,347. One thing they agree on is that the department is in desperate need of more officers.
At the police union's news conference, the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro, said the infighting needs to stop.
"It's somewhat disturbing that we put together two press conferences for the same day," Muse said. "At some point, we must all sit down at the table together. It is important we do this for the citizens of our county."
Johnson later defended High's approach at their joint news conference. "Chief High has put in place a plan that is going to work," Johnson said. "The thing is, we can't have 50 or 60 officers who are doing nothing -- zero -- but picking up a paycheck. Our plan will work when we have all hands on deck."
Johnson's spokesman, James P. Keary, passed out information showing that the number of arrests have dropped dramatically: from 17,615 arrests in 2002 to 9,192 last year. Alston, the union president, said the officers are overworked and spread thin responding to calls, which leaves them little time to police neighborhoods and make arrests.
High said there are no quotas for arrests, declining to explain further how he determines whether an officer is underperforming. He said he will continue to examine the performance of the entire department.
Alston disputed the chief's numbers, saying some of the non-performers on the list are on leave for injury or maternity. Others, he said, are paired with new officers for several months, and the trainee is credited with arrests and tickets.
He said he decided to hold his news conference in response to the 97 homicides being investigated by the county this year, including that of Sgt. Steven Gaughan, who was killed last month while making a traffic stop.
"Since these tragedies have occurred, there has been little public outcry, no measured response and, what is most important, no coordinated effort to reduce crime in Prince George's County," Alston said.
The police union's idea for change is to reduce the size of police officers' beats, returning to a strategy in place before High took over the department in 2003. Alston also said he wants to increase the number of officers on patrol at any given time from 67 to 102, which would ease some of the officers' workload.
He said the number of patrol officers, which he called the backbone of the department, has decreased from 488 last year to 463 this year. The result, he said, is a lengthier wait when someone calls police for help. Additionally, he said, reducing the size of a beat would return officers to having "beat pride" and would reestablish strong relationships with community members, something Alston said has been lost in recent years.
To do this, he suggested a shuffling of positions, including taking officers out of some jobs in the department that could be done by civilians and reassigning some officers now on special task forces.
High's strategy, known as Community Service Areas, has expanded the coverage area for individual officers, Alston said.
The chief, however, defended his plan, saying the size of officers' beats is "manageable." He also said the beat strategy is designed to involve the community in solving problems and issues.
"It is the best of both worlds," he said.