This government agency isn't listed in the phone book. A directory in the lobby of its office building directs visitors to the wrong floor. It hasn't released a single new public document in more than three years and refuses to disclose basic information about its recent activities.
It's not a top-secret research lab or an agency concerned with national security. Instead, it's the Prince George's County Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, a group that is supposed to monitor allegations of police misconduct and brutality and reassure the public that complaints about law enforcement aren't swept under the carpet.
The panel is composed of seven members appointed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who received campaign contributions from six of them when he sought reelection last year.
The members are paid $50 an hour to review complaints of police harassment, excessive force and abusive language. The panel was formed in 1990 in response to a public outcry over the fate of Gregory Kafi Habib, a unarmed Ghanaian man who died after a 1989 scuffle with four white Prince George's police officers during a traffic stop.
The panel is required to issue an annual report to the public detailing the number of cases it has reviewed, as well as its general findings and recommendations for changes in the police department.
But it has been more than three years since the panel's last report, in April 1996, and most of the misconduct investigations it dealt with dated to incidents in 1994.
Panel members said that they regret not publishing a report for the last three years and added that they hope to complete one in the next few months.
The panel's chairman, Valerie J. Kaplan, of Laurel, attributed the delays to computer problems and transition adjustments stemming from the appointment of five new panel members in 1996. But she said the panel has been hard at work and is reviewing cases on a timely basis.
"I think we have done a conscientious and skillful job," Kaplan said in an interview last week. "We have been working very hard to get this report into shape and to get it printed. It's something that is front and center for us. I want this to come out. I feel badly it hasn't."
Kaplan refused to release figures on how many cases the panel has reviewed in recent years or how many complaints it has received. She also refused to describe the nature of any of the panel's findings or to disclose general recommendations it has made to Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell.
Farrell declined to comment. But police spokesman Royce D. Holloway said the department had been receiving regular reports from the panel. "We have a good working relationship with them and welcome their input and oversight," Holloway said. "We don't always agree, but their input is well considered."
The panel meets once a week on average to discuss cases, Kaplan said. The members serve staggered four-year terms.
Members are paid $50 an hour but cannot receive more than $10,000 a year, according to county law. County officials refused to disclose how much panel members have earned since their last report came out in 1996. The panel's budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is $129,600, which includes money for a full-time administrative assistant and a part-time lawyer.
Community activists have criticized the secrecy, saying that the whole point of having a Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel is to build public confidence that complaints about police misconduct will be taken seriously.
"How can we as citizens have any faith in them?" asked Eugene Grant, a Seat Pleasant resident who sits on a separate police department advisory board picked by Farrell. "Are they covering up something? How can we as a community judge or gauge whether or not the panel is effective?"
Fred Thomas, an assistant to Curry and the county's director of public safety, praised the panel's performance, although he said he wished it hadn't fallen three years behind in issuing reports to the public.
"We see no need to take exception to the work they're doing," Thomas said. "We're concerned about the annual report. But it's just one of those things that fell through the cracks."
The issue of police misconduct is especially sensitive in Prince George's, where police make far more arrests and traffic stops than in any other suburb in the Washington region and where relations between the police and the public have long been troubled. Although tensions have subsided somewhat in recent years, allegations of police brutality were loud and frequent during the 1970s and 1980s, as the county changed from a majority white population to one that is now about 57 percent black.
Prince George's and the District are the only jurisdictions in the area where a citizens panel has the authority to regularly review investigations of police misconduct. The District's Civilian Complaint Review Board was disbanded in 1995 after becoming backlogged with more than 750 unresolved cases. The D.C. Council recently approved a bill to reestablish the review board, but it is not yet up and running.
Prince George's police officials said they have worked hard to shed their old reputation for heavy-handedness. The department's statistics show that the number of formal written complaints of police misconduct dropped by more than half between 1993 and 1998, from 187 to 88.
But those figures are hard to verify. The most recent statistics from the Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel are from 1995, and they include only complaints that fall into three specific categories: harassment, abusive language and excessive force.
Kaplan refused to disclose any up-to-date numbers from the panel, saying she couldn't vouch for their accuracy because of computer problems. She said the panel uses a tailor-made software program that makes it difficult to produce reports.
"The complaint numbers have been going down, but exactly how much, that's what we're trying to refine," she said. "I really don't want to release any data until I feel comfortable with its integrity. We need to give [the data] a final scrub."
Some community groups, including the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP, have said they are skeptical that complaints about police behavior have declined. They said residents are reluctant to report problems because they fear retribution or don't think they will be taken seriously.
"Maybe complaints are going down because people don't have any faith in the system," Grant said. "Maybe it's because people think nothing is going to happen. Most of the time, individuals are intimidated by the whole process."
Kaplan acknowledged that the panel doesn't review many high-profile allegations of police brutality because victims don't file formal complaints. Instead, they hire lawyers and file lawsuits.
For instance, at least 13 lawsuits are pending against members of the county police department's canine unit alleging excessive force. But Kaplan said she could recall only one instance in which the panel reviewed a case involving the canine unit.
The panel does not investigate complaints itself. By law, it has only the power to review the written record of investigations conducted by the police department's Internal Affairs Division or by the county's Human Relations Commission.
The panel has 30 working days to review a case and submit its recommendations or comments to the police chief. The chief is not bound to accept the panel's findings.
Kaplan refused to provide summaries of the recommendations or to disclose how often they were accepted or rejected by the chief -- information that has been included in the panel's previous public reports.
She questioned how interested the public is in the panel's work. She said the panel's annual reports from 1992 through 1996 received little attention.
"The public didn't ask many questions when we were producing reports," Kaplan said. "I can't say in the years they came out that there was a very large response from the public. . . . We've gotten zero response -- zip."
But the panel's former chairman, the Rev. Robert J. Williams Sr., said keeping the public informed is important.
"We worked long and hard to make sure we had everything in place and that the reports went out in a timely fashion," said Williams, who oversaw the panel's last public report before stepping down in 1996. "I really don't know what has happened or why things have changed. But if you don't release information at all, the public doesn't know what's going on."
Besides Kaplan, the panel members are: Alfred L. Barrett, of Oxon Hill; Manuel Geraldo, of Camp Springs; Terry P. Goolsby, of Upper Marlboro; Dervey A. Lomax, of College Park; Jervie S. Petty, of Fort Washington; and the Rev. Perry A. Smith III, of Bowie.
Except for Geraldo, all of the panel members gave campaign contributions to Curry during his successful 1998 reelection bid.
According to reports filed with the state Board of Elections, Curry received $1,450 from Smith, $700 from Goolsby, $210 from Barrett, $195 from Lomax and $75 from Kaplan. Curry also received a combined $400 in donations from Petty and her husband, John A. Petty, records show.