The enemy within: Police racism in P.G.

November 21, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

It started simply enough, in a police muster room at the beginning of the midnight shift, with an innocent question. A lieutenant was telling his troops to be on the lookout for a gang spotted earlier in the day brandishing a machine gun.

"Excuse me, lieutenant," Officer Al Gauthier piped up. "What race are the suspects?"

"What race do you think?" the lieutenant snapped.

"Are they black, sir?" Officer Gauthier asked.

"Aren't they always?" the lieutenant retorted.

Officer J. B. Harrison -- the only black officer in the room -- shifted uneasily in his seat. It wasn't the first time he had heard a bigoted remark while serving in the Prince George's County Police Department. But to hear it from a commanding officer in an open muster room in a county where half the population is black was another matter.

A year and a half later, the fallout from that stark exchange in a district station in the sprawling farmlands of Bowie along Route 301 still hovers over the department and the officers who reported it.

It also raises concerns for the gubernatorial campaign of County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who may face troubling questions about recent allegations of racial and sexual discrimination in his Police Department as he seeks votes in Baltimore and his own back yard.

In a car phone interview between campaign stops last week, Mr. Glendening called the charges "isolated situations that you would expect in any organization of 1,700" officers and cited a litany of progress during his 11-year tenure that has included doubling the number of black officers.

"The fair question is 'what was the department like when I came in?' " he said. "The answer is that it was not very progressive. It was not well integrated. I would submit that you would be hard-pressed today to find a department anywhere in the nation that has made the kind of progress we have in just one decade."

He brushed aside critics, saying: "I know who they are, so I'm not particularly concerned about it. It doesn't matter what they say. It matters what the public thinks.

"If this is a major concern, then obviously we will have to sit down and talk about it with people inside and outside the department. But, as far as any widespread systemic problems, I am not aware of any."

But others point to disturbing signs that they say have been difficult to miss. "They have people within that department who say things and do things that are absolutely incredible, and they don't seem to give a damn what anybody thinks," said Jules Bricker, an attorney for one officer in a $21 million sex discrimination suit. "The extent to which Mr. Glendening's inactivity is responsible for the problem can not be overestimated."

Mr. Bricker is not the only one making such charges these days. Interviews with dozens of officers, lawyers and people close to the department -- and a review of more than 300 pages of internal records and court documents -- reveal:

* In two letters of resignation in the past year, exemplary officers said they were quitting because of racial discrimination. In one of those letters, Cpl. Erwin D. Lanier said commanders had failed to deal with "insensitivity to ethnic, religious and cultural differences," adding that he had come to fear for his own "safety and well-being."

* Racial and gender disparities plague key sections of the department. Of 37 top administrators above the rank of lieutenant, only five are black and one is a woman. Of the 73 officers in the department's elite Special Operations Division -- which includes the K-9 unit and SWAT team -- only one is a woman.

"We've made serious progress as far as racial discrimination within this department," said Cpl. Darryl Jones, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "But it's far from over. Where the department is having a tremendous problem right now is in its treatment of women. They are going to pay a heavy price for that."

* In three federal lawsuits, female officers charge that they have been sexually pursued by superiors, denied promotions and targeted for reprisals for speaking out about what one of them called "a climate of open hostility toward female officers." In all, 14 male officers are named as defendants.

"When I first put on that uniform after I got out of the academy 13 years ago, I was proud as I could be," said Cpl. Judith L. McClosky, who says she was denied a spot in the K-9 unit after a captain quizzed her about the fitness of "a 40-year-old woman" for the job -- despite 14 commendations and consistently excellent performance evaluations.

"Now, I'm ashamed of this agency," said Corporal McClosky, who says that the department offered her a disability pension to drop her suit. "The discrimination. The retaliation. In my case, they took an officer who was happy with her job and turned her into a plaintiff."

Corporal McClosky's charges of retribution echo through the court files and find some confirmation in a task force study commissioned two years ago by Police Chief David B. Mitchell.

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