A three-year civil rights review by the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that Montgomery County police did not use excessive force in a series of cases involving minorities but did give a disproportionate number of traffic tickets to African Americans.
Black motorists receive an estimated 21 percent of traffic tickets issued by county police, even though African Americans account for 12 percent of the population, according to a review by investigators from the Justice Department's civil rights division.
The federal probe began three years ago in response to complaints of racial harassment by county police. Similar allegations were made this year after two traffic stops ended in the fatal shooting of an African American by police within a two-week period. Neither incident was part of the Justice Department review.
But three sources familiar with the review said the disparity in issuing traffic tickets was the most significant conclusion among more than a dozen delivered to county officials by the Justice Department at a meeting in October.
Montgomery officials have agreed to comply with several Justice Department recommendations, hoping to avert a federal lawsuit and end a review that County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) says cast a "dark cloud" over the department.
That sentiment was echoed by Linda Plummer, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, which sent the Justice Department more than 300 cases of alleged misconduct by Montgomery police officers involving minorities
"We want to get this report and get it over with," Plummer said. "No matter what it says we're going to keep putting pressure on."
The Justice Department review was critical of police handling of complaints against officers, specifically by the internal affairs division. Federal investigators said that complaints were being handled too slowly and that the cases, now kept on index cards, need to be tracked in a more organized manner.
In response, Montgomery officials agreed to improve the method used to identify problem officers, according to sources familiar with the review. They also said they are considering creating a better system to track complaints to help identify those officers. The have agreed to upgrade the internal affairs manager from the rank of lieutenant to captain. The higher rank would give the job more clout and a more direct line to the police chief.
Montgomery officials already have taken steps to reorganize the internal affairs division, adding staff, moving it out of police headquarters to foster independence, and adding locations where citizens can file complaints against officers.
Two sources familiar with the findings, announced to Montgomery officials by Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee, said the review cleared the department of most of the allegations lodged against it. The investigators found no evidence of a policy--"written or unwritten" in the words of one source--that encouraged racial discrimination by officers or specific acts by officers that amounted to civil rights violations.
Sources familiar with the findings said the Justice Department raised questions about more than a dozen incidents in which Montgomery police pulled over African American drivers for questioning primarily because a witness to a crime had described the suspect as black.
Montgomery and Justice Department officials refused to discuss the negotiations yesterday even as they met to resolve what has been one of the county's most politically charged issues. Christine DiBartolo, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on what she described as "an ongoing investigation."
David Weaver, a spokesman for Duncan, said, "We're having an ongoing discussion with the Justice Department, and we don't feel it's appropriate to comment at this time."
But sources familiar with the talks said that if Justice Department officials decide to sue the county, the decision would be based primarily on the finding that a disproportionate number of African Americans receive tickets during traffic stops.
To address the issue, Montgomery officials have agreed to a recommendation that police officers begin noting the race of motorists in all traffic stops. Now county police officers record a driver's race only if a ticket is issued.
The issue was a sticking point between the two parties, sources said, until county officials recently agreed to begin collecting the additional racial data. Justice Department lawyers believe collecting the information on all traffic stops would provide clues as to whether race is used as a basis for stopping drivers, a practice known as "racial profiling."
Montgomery officials have worried that the additional data could be used to distort the record of officers who work in neighborhoods with a high proportion of minority residents. Furthermore, sources familiar with the findings say Justice Department investigators did not filter out those tickets issued to black motorists as a result of radar stops or accidents, possibly inflating the figure with citations where race may have no influence on the officer's decision.
"We can't believe the Justice Department wants us to stop issuing tickets to people who break the law simply because we bump up against a racial or ethnic cap," said a county official familiar with the negotiations.