Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

It was an unusual position for Prince George’s County’s top cop, sitting in the witness stand of a county courtroom. But in his pressed white shirt and under oath, Police Chief Hank Stawinski testified about events that led him to the courthouse.

The incidents involved one of his captains and now have joined numerous other acrimonious exchanges in the ongoing legal dispute between a group of minority officers in the county department and top police commanders.

Stawinski testified in June that a fellow police chief in the city of Seat Pleasant had filed a complaint against county officer Capt. Joseph Perez, alleging Perez tried to use his position to intimidate and influence city officials.

The captain’s son, who worked as a Seat Pleasant officer, had been denied time off, and Perez allegedly confronted Seat Pleasant Chief Devan Martin over the issue.

In the alleged exchange, Perez reportedly threatened to make labor trouble for Martin as he reminded his son’s chief about workplace litigation against Stawinski and the county in which Perez is a leading voice, according to court testimony.

“ ‘You heard about the complaint I made at the county,’ ” Martin asserts Perez told him over the phone in 2017, according to an internal county police investigative report included in court documents. “ ‘You know you basically, you know, got some issues over there — some unfair practices and I’d hate to have to come over and make a complaint around there.’ ”

A trial board hearing this week and court hearing in June have joined other acrimonious exchanges in an ongoing legal dispute between a group of minority officers on the county department and top police commanders. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Perez, 54, who is a 21-year veteran of the force, had violated department rules for loyalty and ethics, according to court documents and testimony. After internal affairs consulted with three law enforcement agencies to determine the appropriate punishment, commanders agreed to demote Perez from captain to lieutenant.

Perez denies the allegations of the threat and has challenged his penalty, noting that it took a year for the department to reprimand him and that the sanction came after he had a prominent role challenging the department over disciplinary practices. A three-day trial board for Perez started Tuesday to determine whether the charges and punishment against him should stand.

At the trial board hearing, Perez’s attorney said Martin’s allegations were motivated by a desire to keep Perez from “butting into” department affairs. Martin testified that Perez on multiple occasions had asked the chief for leave on his son’s behalf or to discuss his son’s employment.

Perez’s son took a job with Glenarden police shortly after the April 2017 incident, according to testimony from the trial board. Perez this week said his son is on active duty in the military and would not be available to comment.

Perez’s pushback over the reprimand is what prompted Stawinski to be summoned to court in June to explain: Was the Prince George’s Police Department’s decision to discipline and demote Perez a fair response to Martin’s complaint? Or was the punishment, as Perez asserts, retaliation?

Bob Ross, with the Prince George’s NAACP, speaks in support of county police officers who announced in December 2018 that they filed a lawsuit against the police department. (Lynh Bui/The Washington Post)

Perez, president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, said the county sought to demote him because of his prominence in actions with the U.S. Justice Department. An internal affairs investigative report shows that Perez said he had gone to the Seat Pleasant department when he needed his son’s help for a move and to ask the son’s department to reconsider giving him the time off.

The day-long standoff in June in Prince George’s County Circuit Court — pitting the chief of police against the key figure driving discrimination complaints against his department — was a glimpse of how the charged battle between minority officers suing Prince George’s police claiming unfair employment practices could grow more contentious.

In July, a federal judge blocked the county’s attempts to keep the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the United Black Police Officers Association from moving forward as part of the lawsuit. The judge’s opinion is a “key victory,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, which is representing the officers with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“They’re suing on behalf of themselves and their members,” Jeon said. Both sides are preparing for trial as the Justice Department continues to investigate the Prince George’s Police Department’s employment practices based on the 2016 complaint from Perez and others, Jeon said.

The clash turns on whether reprimands cited by officers in the suit represent a pattern of “disparate discipline” and retaliation for their activism or were appropriate department responses in individual cases.

On one side, Perez and 16 other minority officers claim they are victims of civil rights violations. They contend the department discriminates against black and Hispanic employees and retaliates against those who report racist or inappropriate conduct. The department, the officers’ suit asserts, has failed to appropriately discipline white officers who asked black officers whether they are “hungry for chicken,” used racial epithets or called minority communities “ghettoes,” or expletives, according to examples cited in court filings.

On the other side, one of the largest police departments in the nation, with more than 1,500 sworn officers, contends the grievances from the 17 officers suing do not represent discipline meted out in a “pattern or practice” of discrimination but were responses to distinct, individual circumstances. For example, the county’s lawyers claim in court filings, the complaint of one plaintiff who faced termination for allegedly texting a photo of his genitals to a domestic violence victim should not be considered part of a pattern that would include another plaintiff punished for reportedly pulling out his service weapon during a dispute with a parking attendant.

And in the case of the lead plaintiff — Perez — the demotion recommendation came after internal affairs found he violated police policies of threatening to besmirch the reputation of another department over a personal matter, county public safety officials testified.

The details of Perez’s case emerged during state court proceedings in which Perez tried to halt his disciplinary action. A judge ruled in the police department’s favor, and the trial board underway will determine whether to affirm the department’s decision to demote him. The trial board could also decide to recommend lighter or more severe punishment, including dismissal, or dismiss the charges.

The case against Perez stems from April 11, 2017. Perez went to the Seat Pleasant Police Department and asked about his son’s leave request with a sergeant at headquarters before threatening Martin on the phone, according to Martin’s court testimony from the June hearing.

Martin testified he was “in awe” at the threat and reported the exchange to Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant.

“Sir, we need to talk,” the mayor texted Stawinski, according to court filings. “One of your officers threatened my Chief of Police. I am beyond angry.”

According to an internal affairs investigation report, Perez admitted to investigators that he went to the Seat Pleasant police station to ask about his son’s leave request, but he denied he made threats.

When a county police internal affairs investigator asked whether Perez threatened Martin with a complaint, according to the investigation report, Perez said, “ ‘Hell, oh, I’m sorry. No. A — a — absolutely not.’ ”

Prince George’s police launched an inquiry after receiving a formal complaint from Martin, but it wasn’t until a year later, in April 2018, that the department decided it would demote Perez for violations of loyalty and ethics. The timing of the discipline, Perez and his lawyer assert, is suspect.

“It was not until after the Prince George’s County Police Department became aware that the DOJ investigation that was initiated by Capt. Perez has been made official . . . that the matter became a formal investigation that he was subsequently charged with the violations of policy,” Perez’s attorney Shaun Owens said in court. “What we have there, is it a mere coincidence?”

Stawinski said the police department took its time deliberately, given the unusual stakes.

“It’s rare that . . . a ranking officer on duty engages in such a manner that an elected official files a complaint,” Stawinski testified, referring to the text from Grant. “There are impacts in that that extend beyond our internal processes.”

Amid the department’s review of Perez’s interaction with Seat Pleasant police, the Justice Department told Prince George’s it would conduct a formal employment investigation based on allegations from Perez. Public safety executives decided to contact the Justice Department and ask whether they should proceed with Perez’s pending investigation or whether doing so would be considered retaliatory, according to court testimony from June.

Five months later, the Justice Department told county lawyers investigations “should run their normal course.”

After a day of testimony, Prince George’s County Circuit Judge John P. Davey said in June that the demotion was not retaliation. The department had an obligation to investigate a complaint from a third party.

“From March 2016, the Department was aware of Captain Perez’s allegations that the Department discriminated against him and others based upon their national origin,” Davey wrote. “Given Captain Perez’s filings with the DOJ and EEOC, the Department conducted the investigation with an abundance of caution.”

Perez, who said the department conducted a “one-sided investigation,” said he’ll continue to fight at the police trial board.

“They weren’t thorough,” Perez said of the department’s Seat Pleasant investigation. “They were disingenuous.”