The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

While vowing police reform, a majority-Black county has spent $17.6 million fighting officers who allege racism

Joe Perez, left, Sonya Zollicoffer and Lt. Thomas Boone are three plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit filed by Black and Latino police officers against the Prince George’s County Police Department. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Angela D. Alsobrooks, the leader of one of the most powerful majority-Black communities in the country, has said that amid this national racial-justice reckoning, she wants her county to be a model for police reform.

She hired a new chief, assembled a police reform work group, invested in mental health services and paid a historic settlement of $20 million to the family of a man killed by an officer in the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland.

But behind the scenes, her administration has been vigorously fighting an attempt by some of its own officers to hold that same police department accountable in court — and in the process has authorized the spending of at least $17.6 million of taxpayer money, according to invoices obtained through a records request and reviewed by The Washington Post.

For 2½ years, the county has defended the department and three White police leaders who are named in a federal lawsuit brought by a group of Black and Latino officers alleging systemic discrimination on the force. Racism against officers of color, their complaint argues, has ultimately harmed the county’s residents — more than 80 percent of whom are Black or Latino.

Now, as the cost to defend the department continues to mount, with no indication of when litigation will end, lawmakers and residents are increasingly pressing Alsobrooks to settle. They’re frustrated, saying the cost, including millions of dollars in legal fees paid to Venable LLP, the private D.C. law firm the county hired, contradicts promises of change and undermines the ability to pay for reform.

“I have problems with how much we are spending to defend something that doesn’t really seem defensible,” said County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5). “We are a Black county. How are we not doing more to stand up for Black officers and Black people in general?”

The push to remake policing takes decades, only to begin again

In court, lawyers and experts for the county have argued that the lawsuit’s claims don’t reflect a systemic pattern, that some accusations come from officers with disciplinary histories and that the department is compliant with industry best practices.

Alsobrooks, a Democrat, said in a brief interview that her administration had an obligation to defend the department in court and hire lawyers who would ensure that the county was treated fairly in the litigation. Those responsibilities are separate, the county executive said, from her commitment to reform.

“There is a false choice between whether the police department should be reformed and whether or not I should execute my fiduciary duties,” she said. “You have to do both. It is not either-or.”

This type of litigation, she said in a statement, is “unfortunately very expensive for all parties.” She declined to answer further questions about the lawsuit, including why the county continued to fight as bills mounted.

Venable declined to comment.

County Attorney Rhonda Weaver pointed to the breadth and amount of legal work required of the 14-plaintiff case as the reason for the high cost — more than $15.6 million of which went to Venable and $1.9 million of which went to outside experts, records show.

The county was not able to provide a definitive accounting of its spending until almost two months after The Post initially inquired about the expenses. The Post also found that the county paid Venable at least $2 million more than what Weaver’s office approved in contracts or addendums.

She said because of the oversights, she is instituting new procedures to ensure that such mistakes don’t happen again.

Neither party has said publicly whether they are moving to mediate, and any settlement payment by the county would be an expense on top of the millions it has already spent. If Prince George’s continues to litigate the case, the legal bills may soon exceed the $20 million settlement that Alsobrooks has pointed to as evidence of her commitment to police accountability.

The legal fight has disappointed the family who received that settlement in the killing of William Green, who authorities say was shot six times in 2020 while handcuffed in a police cruiser by an officer with a history of use-of-force incidents. He might still be alive, the family says, had the county acknowledged and acted upon the lawsuit’s allegations sooner.

“These people tried to take a stand,” said Green’s cousin, Nikki Owens, “and no one listened to them.”

After red flags, a fatal police shooting

'We encourage transparency'

At first, the officers who brought the suit say, they didn’t want money — just change.

Through affinity groups representing Black and Latino officers, some of the plaintiffs had met regularly with department leadership since the 1990s, raising concerns about unfair treatment, a disproportionately White force and abuse of minority residents — a problem that drew a Justice Department investigation and oversight in the 2000s.

The federal government’s monitoring ended years later after the department implemented mandated reforms. In the years that followed, though, the officers grew increasingly frustrated with police leadership and what they saw as a backslide in progress, culminating in 2016 when they say Hank Stawinski, the new chief, halted their regular meetings and dismissed their grievances.

That year, the presidents of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the United Black Police Officers Association filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, asking it to investigate allegations of unfair promotional and disciplinary practices, racism on the force, and retaliation against those who tried to speak up. More than 100 officers eventually signed onto the complaint, according to the affinity groups.

“The only thing we were looking for were some changes,” said HNLEA President Joe Perez, a former police captain. “That’s it.”

When the Justice Department approached the county about mediation, officials declined, according to court documents. Stawinski later said in a deposition that he feared such negotiations without the police union could violate labor law.

Federal officials then opened a formal investigation of the department. Stawinski had already assembled an equity panel to investigate the officers’ complaints — but court records indicate that it was dissolved in early 2018 without any formal findings.

“We saw all these things and were like, ‘They’re never going to fix it,’ and so someone has to stand up and make sure they are held accountable,” said Lt. Thomas Boone, the UBPOA president.

In December 2018, Boone and Perez filed the lawsuit with 10 other officers, reiterating their allegations and claiming that Stawinski’s “actions and inactions have caused racism on the force to thrive.”

Stawinski did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report and has largely declined to discuss the lawsuit since it was filed, but he told The Post in 2017, before the litigation began, that he had never nailed down specific allegations or a pattern of prejudicial treatment of officers.

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The day the complaint was filed, Alsobrooks, less than two weeks into her term as county executive, told reporters that she had not yet read its contents but took all allegations of discrimination seriously.

“We are not afraid, should we find it necessary, to hold people accountable,” she said. “We encourage transparency.”

Despite Alsobrooks’s words that day, critics say, the county’s handling of the lawsuit has been opaque.

Within weeks of the filing, the county selected Venable to defend the department. There was no formal bid process, a county spokesperson said, in part because “time was of the essence.”

In their first contract, from December 2018 to June 2019, the county established an hourly rate for Venable attorneys of $544 for partners and $350 for associates — with a total fee cap set at $190,000. Instead, the county paid Venable at least $1.49 million for fees incurred during that period, according to invoices reviewed by The Post.

When The Post initially inquired about the discrepancy, the county did not provide an explanation for the difference. When The Post pressed further, the county said an addendum was created in 2019 raising Venable’s total authorized payment to $690,000. The Post asked to see a copy of that addendum, which the county did not include in its initial records disclosure, but officials did not provide it.

Days later, a county spokesperson said officials had been “informed by the Office of Law that they cannot locate” the addendum. Eventually, Weaver acknowledged that the addendum had never been executed.

The county has never produced documentation showing how the additional $1.3 million spent in fiscal year 2019 was authorized.

The county also spent beyond what it initially approved in contracts for the following two fiscal years, according to records reviewed by The Post, and signed off on the contracts months after their terms began.

The contract for fiscal 2020, which began in July 2019, was not signed by the county until September 2019. By the end of that month, Venable had already invoiced the county in excess of the contract’s $1.5 million fee cap.

It was not until early February that the county executed an addendum setting a new cap of $6 million. Again, the county spent beyond that limit, ultimately paying Venable $6.9 million for fiscal 2020.

In its latest contract, which ends this month, Venable was authorized to charge the county up to $6 million for fees incurred during fiscal 2021.

As of May, the county had already paid Venable $7.25 million.

County officials signed an addendum June 17 authorizing an additional $2.5 million in spending.

Weaver said that while she signed off on Venable’s invoices to the county, she was focused on the substance of the work and did not personally track whether those invoices exceeded what was approved in contracts.

It was not until The Post began asking questions about the invoices and contracts that Weaver said she realized her office’s record-keeping had not kept up with the mounting costs of the lawsuit. When the county initially fulfilled its records request to The Post, it mistakenly included multiple invoices from unrelated litigation and confirmed spending for the lawsuit based on those numbers. After The Post reviewed and asked about the invoices, the county acknowledged the error.

Eventually, after weeks of questions from The Post, Weaver said she examined every invoice to confirm the $17.6 million the county had paid Venable and experts.

As part of her new procedure, she said, she will personally track the running tally to ensure that the county does not exceed its own spending limits. This policy, she said, will mean that addendums are authorized more promptly or that invoices are not paid above the authorized fee amounts.

'Things might have been different'

At first, lawmakers and community organizers said, they understood the county’s decision to defend itself in court.

But June 2020, they said, should have been a turning point. Amid historic racial-justice demonstrations, the plaintiffs in Prince George’s — represented by lawyers from Arnold & Porter, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the ACLU of Maryland — filed an expert report in court arguing that disciplinary, promotional and use-of-force data proved discrimination and outlining specific instances of alleged racism from officers.

Stawinski, a defendant in the suit, resigned as chief the same day.

Alsobrooks, pledging change, quickly launched a national search for a new chief and formed a police reform work group, eventually accepting dozens of its recommendations.

But in court, her administration continued to vigorously defend the suit. The county hired former Montgomery County police chief J. Thomas Manger, who had worked alongside Stawinski during their tenures leading neighboring departments, to write a counter-report in which he said that the department’s disciplinary and promotional practices were fair and that the plaintiffs’ expert misrepresented data, including on the diversity of department leadership.

And citing public-records laws, the county spent months fighting to keep the public from seeing the plaintiffs’ full report — which is hundreds of pages long and includes the names of officers accused of racism — resulting in more legal fees.

The county also refused to give access to the report to officials who said they needed it to do their jobs, including the public defender and state’s attorney, whose cases rely on police integrity. Even county council members, responsible for approving the budget, said they could not get the unredacted report.

The extent of the allegations against the department finally became public in February, when a judge ordered the county to unseal the report. Allegations included an officer referring to President Barack Obama as a “coon” and defending the Ku Klux Klan, another officer calling all Latina women “whores,” and another describing members of command staff as “baboons.”

Allegations of racism, discrimination among Pr. George’s police reveal systemic problems, unsealed report asserts

After the report was unsealed, community organizers — including Owens, Green’s cousin — called on Alsobrooks to “clean house” in the department.

“The community has to look at this,” Owens said, “and they have to make a decision about what’s truth and what’s not.”

Months earlier, her family was invited to address Alsobrooks’s reform work group as part of the settlement agreement with the county. But before she could present the changes her family wanted, Owens said, the family’s attorney told her that she was not allowed to speak. (A spokesman for Alsobrooks said only immediate family could address the group, per the settlement’s terms.)

County council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6) said he has personally experienced discrimination from police as a Black man and was not naive about issues within the department. But reading the report, he said, left him stunned.

He believes the council appropriately supported fighting the lawsuit at first based on the information it had. But if the council had the full report earlier, he said, “things might have been different.”

“As a legislator put in that position,” he said, “it was like sending someone to a pop quiz blind.”

'Come to the table'

The once-private discontent about the lawsuit has recently spilled into public view.

Community groups launched a public awareness campaign highlighting how the lawsuit funding, which officials said has come from the police department budget, could have instead paid for housing assistance, mental health resources, crime prevention and accountability measures. Officials, for example, said for years that the county did not have the money for body cameras.

State Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), the co-chair of the reform work group, said that the suit is “costing the taxpayers a lot of money to defend something that we have known has been true for decades.”

And Alsobrooks’s own position seemed to shift in late April, when a judge ordered the county to overhaul its promotions process to fix possible bias, two officers were indicted on misconduct charges and she asked for the resignation of her top public safety official, Mark Magaw, a former police chief and one of the named defendants in the lawsuit. Magaw did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In her announcement of the leadership departures, Alsobrooks acknowledged “systemic” issues. “I believe with new policies and leadership at the top, and the reforms that we are continuing to implement in our Department, we have the fresh start we need to continue moving forward,” she said.

During one of his first days on the job in May, Malik Aziz, the new police chief, was grilled by the council about his plans to overhaul the culture that led to the lawsuit.

“We don’t have to defend this,” said council member Ivey. “This is indefensible.”

Aziz told Ivey that he was still gathering information but that it was his impression the lawsuit was “nearing its culmination.”

Organizer Krystal Oriadha, who founded PG Change Makers and was on Alsobrooks’s reform group, said it is not too late for the county to settle. If it continues to defend the department, she said, it will be difficult for the community to take Alsobrooks’s pledges of reform seriously.

“If you really know there are issues, and you really want to solve them,” she said, “come to the table.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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