Most black residents of Prince George's County think that police treat minorities worse than whites, a view shared by some white residents, according to a Washington Post poll.
The perception of unequal police treatment -- a longstanding complaint in the county's black community -- persists even though most residents, blacks as well as whites, expressed positive feelings about the overall quality of the county's police force.
The poll also yielded generally high marks for the quality of other county services and the leadership of County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat seeking election to a third term.
Most residents rated the county government as efficient. But after a turbulent period in which two County Council members were indicted and the county became the focus of a statewide ethics debate over campaign contributions by developers, many residents expressed concern about the integrity and judgment of county officials.
In a county with a rapidly growing black population, the poll offers a glimpse of the differing perceptions of black and white residents about the quality of their government.
It also provides the first clear barometer of racial attitudes about the police since the violent death last year of Gregory Habib, a black man who was killed during a scuffle with four police officers in Langley Park. Although Habib's death was ruled accidental, the incident fueled protests in the black community over alleged police use of unnecessary force.
Glendening said he is not surprised that negative perceptions about the police still exist among blacks. "But it's a reputation based on actions of many years ago. One of our major thrusts of the last few years has been to improve that perception so that every person believes they are treated equally and fairly by the police department," he said.
But Glendening said he is pleased that the poll shows overall approval of the work of the police department, a rating that he said is in keeping with his surveys. The Post poll found that 72 percent of the residents rate the department as excellent or good. "Three out of four residents of the county, whether they're black or white, believe that the department is doing a good job," Glendening said.
County Council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr., who is challenging Glendening, said the numbers underscore a widespread sentiment he has found in the black community. "I'll tell you that as a black father right now, I can't say I feel confident when my boys are on the streets in Prince George's County that they are totally safe. There's a good possibility that a policeman will just come by and blow them away."
Prince George's County Police Chief David B. Mitchell, who is trying to change negative perceptions of the department through new community outreach programs, said the numbers show "we have a lot of work to do. Our image did not come about overnight, and it's not going to change overnight. It will take a tremendous effort, which we're making here in Prince George's County. I'll tell you one thing: We'll never fail because we didn't try."
At a time when the black community has been clamoring for greater political representation, blacks showed slightly less trust than whites in the conduct of county leaders. Asked to rate the ethics of their top officials, 48 percent of the blacks graded them fair or poor while 46 percent rated them excellent or good. Among whites, 40 percent said they were fair or poor and 50 percent said they were excellent or good.
But blacks appeared more optimistic about the county's predominantly black school system. More than half of the blacks said they think the schools will improve during the next five years, compared with 41 percent of the whites polled.
The figures are based on a telephone survey conducted Aug. 7-19 of 810 randomly selected Prince George's County residents. About 43 percent of the respondents are black and 48 percent are white, which corresponds to official estimates of the county's racial makeup.
Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall results and plus or minus 5 percentage points for results based on just the answers of one racial group.
Differences between the races were most striking on a question about police treatment of minorities. Sixty-eight percent of blacks said police treat blacks worse than whites. Fifteen percent of blacks said police treat the two races equally, and 1 percent said they feel blacks are treated better than whites.
Some black respondents said in interviews that while they think the police are doing an adequate job, many officers are prejudiced and treat minorities with a disrespect that sometimes leads to unnecessary confrontation.
"I've seen them use force unnecessarily. I've seen them throw kids against the car. They don't talk to you in a decent, respectful manner. I've seen a lot of situations when things would have been so much better if the police had just acted a little calmer," said Yvonne Smith, 37, a billing clerk from Bladensburg.
About 41 percent of the whites polled said blacks and whites are treated equally by police. Yet 29 percent of whites agreed with the statement that blacks are treated worse than whites.
Donald Woolery, 66, a white retiree in Bowie, said the Habib incident convinced him that blacks and whites are not treated equally. "I think it was just part of a larger picture," he said. "My impression after living here for 28 years is that this kind of thing goes on a lot. I suppose it's all in the training the officers are getting."
Views of discriminatory treatment by police were far more frequently and intensely expressed by younger blacks. According to the survey, 52 percent of blacks under age 30 said police treated blacks "much worse" than whites and 22 percent said blacks were treated "a little worse."
But among blacks 60 and older, 25 percent said blacks were treated much worse than whites and 29 percent said they were treated a little worse.
Majorities of both age groups rated overall police service in the county as good or excellent, although younger blacks were less enthusiastic. According to the poll, 68 percent of blacks under 30 rated police service as good or excellent, compared with 90 percent of blacks 60 or older.
Sheila Cunningham, 41, a black homemaker from Capitol Heights, said she gave the police an excellent rating although "you can see the prejudice when they approach you. They're very rude. But they have a job to do and they do it."
Most residents gave Glendening's administration good grades on delivering basic services. And most had a generally favorable view of the quality of life in the county. Twenty-four percent of those polled said the government is getting better, compared with 15 percent of those polled in Montgomery County. About 25 percent of Prince George's residents said the government was getting worse, while 45 percent said the quality of life was staying about the same.
Glendening, who has been executive since 1982, said he was pleased by his own approval rating. The poll showed that 44 percent give him favorable marks, while 14 percent disapprove of his performance. Another 42 percent responded "don't know" to the question. Glendening said that figure is typical of "county officials everywhere" who have relatively low public recognition.
Like their neighbors in Montgomery County, Prince George's residents rated drugs as the county's number one problem. Crime was their number two concern.
"I think almost all of the crime committed in this county is related to drugs somehow. There are drug busts every day. You can't read the newspaper without hearing about it," said Arlene Weiss, 66, a Defense Department employee from Laurel.
Residents also expressed major concerns about the cost of housing and the lack of recreational opportunities for young people.
In the midst of a major development boom in the county, which has the last stretches of affordable land close to Washington, most residents say developers have too much influence in county affairs while civic groups, teachers, minorities and average citizens wield too little, the poll shows. Seventy-three percent of those polled said developers have too much influence.
Some residents said the closeness between developers and county officials -- most of whom have depended on builders for campaign contributions -- has fueled their mistrust of their leaders.
"Sometimes, I really think things get done underhandedly. There are a lot of things done over a lunch table that shouldn't be done that way. I don't like what I see happening, and I think there are very few people in this county who aren't concerned with the pace of development," said Susan Salmond, 38, a Kettering mother of three.