A group of officers filed a lawsuit in federal court against Prince George’s County, alleging that the police department discriminates against black and Hispanic employees and retaliates against those who report racist or inappropriate conduct involving white officers.
Two police associations representing black and Hispanic officers and 12 current and former officers filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland. They assert that the department denies officers of color promotions and disciplines them more harshly than white officers. The suit also accuses the department of unfairly transferring, demoting or firing those who complain of biased treatment, creating an environment that fosters distrust between police and the community.
“Many of our officers have witnessed abuses of people of color in our community, only to be retaliated against once they have reported the incidents,” said Joseph Perez, president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association. “We need to ensure that when there is doubt, officers are confident to bring forth inquiries without fear of retaliation.”
A spokeswoman for Prince George’s County police said she could not comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.
Among the complaints, the lawsuit accuses police leadership of failing to appropriately discipline white officers who have circulated text messages about bringing “back public hangings” or who have asked black officers whether they are “hungry for chicken.”
The lawsuit is the latest action in ongoing complaints by officers of color, who last year asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate their concerns.
Officials with the Justice Department would not comment Wednesday on the “existence or nonexistence” of an investigation.
Deborah Jeon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which is backing the officers’ lawsuit, said the employment section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division is conducting the probe. Jeon said federal investigators have continued to interview officers in their review of employment practices in the Prince George’s police force.
The new county executive, Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), said she had not had a chance to review the lawsuit.
“Any allegation of discrimination, whether it be in the police department or any agency, will be taken very seriously,” she said at a news conference, adding, “We’re not afraid, should we find it necessary, to hold people accountable.”
But in her new role, she said, “I think I need an opportunity . . . to hear first what the allegations are. Not just from these officers, but to have an opportunity as well to look at the agency, to hear from others in the agency and to get a sense for what the culture is there.”
Alsobrooks was most recently state’s attorney, the county’s top prosecutor. “What I can tell you is this is an immensely successful department, and I’ve been able to work with the chief as state’s attorney. I have not had an opportunity to work with him as county executive,” she said. “I look forward to doing that, and to learning — again not just from these officers, but from others — about what the experience has been, and to analyze it fresh for myself as county executive.”
In addition to the ACLU of Maryland, the officers’ lawsuit is backed by the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Officials from both organizations said racially biased employment practices in a law enforcement agency can harm the community being policed by that agency’s officers.
“Any police department that fosters a culture of racial harassment and retaliation against officers of color within its ranks can’t hope to gain the community trust and support that is so necessary for achieving better public safety for everyone,” said Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. “Officers who speak out against misconduct and racism should be praised, not punished.”
Some of the officers who say they have been unfairly targeted have complained of white officers using racial epithets to describe minority officers, according to the lawsuit, which also contends that white officers called minority communities “s---holes” or “ghettoes.”
Perez and others have called for the ouster of Prince George’s Police Chief Hank Stawinski, who is named in the lawsuit along with other public-safety leaders in the county. The lawsuit said officers have brought their concerns to the attention of Stawinski and other police leaders but have seen no action.
“Chief Stawinski has effectively condoned this behavior by failing to discipline appropriately the perpetrators, fostering an environment where racist conduct unacceptable in today’s society is allowed to persist,” the lawsuit asserts. The message is clear, the lawsuit claims: “Racist and other unprofessional behavior by White officers will be condoned, Officers of Color who complain about the conduct will be punished, and Officers of Color who engage in any infraction will be severely disciplined and/or driven from the force.”
The lawsuit seeks an independent monitor to ensure fairness of disciplinary procedures within the department. It also demands the department reinstate officers it says were wrongfully terminated, compensate them for lost wages and expunge their related disciplinary records.
Thomas Boone, president of the United Black Police Officers Association, said he was demoted to patrol recently for continually bringing his concerns to the attention of the department. Boone said he flagged disparities in performance in psychological evaluations between white applicants and applicants of color to his supervisors before one of them told him to stop and gave him a bad performance evaluation.
“We’re calling on the police department,” Boone said, “to enact fair policies and procedures.”