The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Prince George's County Police Department amid complaints it has discriminated in hiring and disciplining black and Hispanic officers, the county's police chief said Tuesday.
Chief Hank Stawinski said in a statement that federal officials notified him of the inquiry on Saturday and he promised to "cooperate fully and completely with this investigation and will provide any and all requested information to the Civil Rights Division without reservation."
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to confirm or deny the investigation. The review, known as a pattern and practice investigation, is focused on allegations of employment discrimination, Stawinski said. It differs from other Justice Department investigations of local police, such as one done in Baltimore, which looked at discriminatory and unconstitutional arrest and patrol practices.
The federal agency's review in Prince George's County will include examining complaints that minority officers are treated unfairly, and whether they have been demoted or disciplined after exposing wrongdoing.
The details of the 300-page complaint, sent to federal authorities by two minority police groups, have not been made public. Stawinski has expressed frustration that he also has not seen the document and does not know the specific allegations.
In February, the chief launched a fact-finding panel to investigate the fairness of the department's promotions and disciplinary process. The panel, which has met eight times, is made up of retired and current members of the police force, along with academics, county officials and community members.
"The goal of the panel is to obtain facts and gain insights into perceptions about the department and then provide specific guidance to me to correct issues identified during the process," Stawinski said in his statement.
But Joe Perez, president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, said that complaints brought to Stawinski after his group first asked the Justice Department to step in have gone nowhere. He said an officer who alleged criminal misconduct by a colleague was transferred, while the officer who allegedly committed the act remained unpunished. He said another officer who alleged discrimination had a performance review changed to be less favorable. He would not provide details.
"We're happy that someone with a fair and objective eye will come in and look at these problems," said Perez, who is a captain on the Prince George's police force assigned to human resources. He said Stawinski "has not been forthcoming."
Bob Ross, president of the county's NAACP and a member Stawinski's panel, said the discussions among members are overly broad "and were not getting down to the real problems of discrimination." He said the panel should continue its work, but he also praised the Justice Department for stepping in "to give a fresh set of eyes on the problem."
But Carlos F. Acosta, the police department's inspector general and co-chair of the fact-finding panel, said Stawinski and other commanders would like to see thecomplaints sent to the Justice Department.
"We believe they are going to tread the same ground that we're treading," Acosta said, only with more specific information. "The chief has asked us to seek out the problems that may be in this police department. Anyone can allege things. Anyone can generalize."
John Teletchea, the president of the county's police union, called Justice Department involvement premature. He said the panel is hearing complaints and "we are waiting for it to come back with their findings and recommendations. The process is moving along several fronts for officers who feel they have been treated unfairly."