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

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

An expert report unsealed Monday details dozens of instances of alleged racism by Prince George’s County police officers that plaintiffs in a federal discrimination lawsuit say reflect a department that systemically treated Black and Hispanic employees unfairly.

The report, which has remained heavily redacted by request of the county since it was first filed eight months ago, contains the names of dozens of officers and department leaders who are either alleged to have behaved in racist, discriminatory ways or allowed the misconduct to go mostly unpunished. Some of the new allegations include officers posting derogatory remarks about Black superiors in chat groups, making sexist and racist comments about Latinas, and calling Black colleagues a “Signal 7” — the police code for a suspicious person.

The unredacted material also includes a deposition from former police chief Hank Stawinski, who testified that the loss of confidence in him by the NAACP after the report’s release pushed him to retire because “a new voice was needed . . . for the continued health of our community.”

The newly revealed information details specific allegations of racist behavior by individuals and then links those examples to data that those who filed the lawsuit assert demonstrates systemic disparities impacting personnel matters such as discipline, promotions and internal investigations into complaints made by fellow officers and citizens. The report also connects members of the department’s top leadership to administrative decisions that allowed alleged disparities to fester.

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In a statement, County Attorney Rhonda Weaver cited Prince George’s own expert report, filed in court last fall, which questions the substance of the plaintiffs’ expert report. The county report also concludes that the department has “complied with its policies for addressing harassment and discrimination complaints, which are commensurate with best practices and industry standards.” The county’s report also contends that the plaintiffs’ expert misrepresented information and highlighted material without context.

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, a group of Black and Hispanic Prince George’s officers, have been arguing for years that the discriminatory attitudes of individual officers permeate departmental structures that not only negatively impact minority officers internally but harm the community externally. The report also alleges that a member of management worked with the police union to expunge police records and that the department has failed to punish officers accused of racial profiling.

In several instances outlined in the report, the officers accused of racist misconduct were the same people responsible for reviewing whether the physical force officers used against civilians — the majority of whom were Black or Hispanic — was excessive.

Police used physical force against civilians 6,805 times between 2016 and 2019, according to the report, and that force was justified 99.8 percent of the time.

The county’s own expert report, written by former Montgomery County police chief Thomas Manger, argues the high justification rate implies that officers rarely use inappropriate force.

The plaintiffs’ report also called out the instance of a corporal who was the subject of at least eight complaints by Black people who alleged he touched them inappropriately during stops. One complaint was closed because it wasn’t investigated in a timely manner, and no similar complaints against the corporal were lodged against him by White people, according to the report.

Data from the plaintiffs’ newly unsealed report also contends that the racial makeup of the department and its leadership does not reflect the diversity of the community. The population of Prince George’s, a suburb of Washington, D.C., is 67 percent Black, 17 percent Hispanic and 14 percent White. But the approximate demographics of the police department are 44.5 percent White, 42.8 percent Black and 9 percent Hispanic.

The demographics are even more disproportionate within some of the department’s management, the report contends. In 2019, nearly 69 percent of majors, captains and lieutenants were White compared with the combined 29.2 percent who were Black or Hispanic.

The original lawsuit, filed in December 2018 by members of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association (HNLEA) and the United Black Police Officers Association (UBPOA), alleges a tolerance of discrimination within the department and a culture of retaliation against those who blow the whistle on misconduct.

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The plaintiffs hired former Los Angeles assistant sheriff Michael Graham to conduct a comprehensive review of the demographic and internal affairs data from 2013 to 2019 obtained during discovery.

The resulting report and its supplemental materials, which are hundreds of pages long, were first filed with the court in June. But attorneys representing the county and the police department argued that much of it should be sealed, claiming police personnel records are confidential under Maryland state statute.

At a news conference that day, the plaintiffs and their attorneys broadly described the contents of the report, and the president of the county NAACP called for Stawinski’s resignation.

Hours later, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) announced Stawinski was stepping down. At the time, Alsobrooks said that Stawinski’s resignation “did not have anything to do with” the release of the redacted expert report and that it had come after months of conversations with the community and the department.

But in his deposition, Stawinski said he had reviewed the report and “saw a lot of the same concerns that had been raised in numerous prior conversations, and that really was part of what propelled me to retire.”

After the news conference, Stawinski met with Deputy County Administrator Mark Magaw, another former police chief, and the two agreed he would leave the department.

Then-deputy chief Hector Velez, who oversaw internal affairs, was appointed interim chief of police. The search for a permanent chief remains ongoing.

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Weeks after Stawinski resigned, Alsobrooks assembled a police reform work group to evaluate hiring, training and use of force within the department, and earlier this month she announced plans to adopt 46 of their 50 recommended reforms. The county has spent the past two years denying that the plaintiffs’ individual experiences constitute evidence of systemic departmental wrongdoing. The expert who wrote the county’s analysis of Graham’s report, Manger, argues that the department increased diversity within internal affairs throughout Stawinski’s tenure.

When asked about the connection between the recommendations and the lawsuit — which in part address similar concerns of disparities and misconduct — Alsobrooks said the two were “separate issues.”

Large parts of the county’s expert report are also redacted, and in her statement, Weaver said that the county “is hopeful it has the opportunity to release the unredacted version of its own expert report.”

Community groups, as well as the county’s top prosecutor and public defender, all advocated for the names of the officers listed in the report to be released.

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The state’s attorney’s office said that information was critical to fulfilling its constitutional obligations under the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence about their trial witnesses to the defense. The state’s attorney’s office claimed it no longer trusted its usual pathways for obtaining that information — through police internal affairs records — because, according to the plaintiffs’ expert report, there are numerous instances in which reports of racism were never formally investigated.

Aisha Braveboy, the state’s attorney, said in a statement that her office will “conduct a thorough review” of the report and “take appropriate action.”

“While this is going to be a huge undertaking,” Braveboy said, “I strongly believe this is in the best interest of the people of Prince George’s County.”

Prince George’s public defender Keith Lotridge said Monday his office will assemble all the officer names in the report to determine whether the allegations of officer racial bias call into question the integrity of police investigations that led to people’s arrests.

“This is now a time-intensive project for any agency that just doesn’t have the bandwidth to take on anything more,” Lotridge said. “But we’re going to do it anyway.”

Rachel Chason contributed to this report.

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