Police Can Learn From P.G. Troubles

COMMENT

June 18, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

A Prince George's County judge's decision to sentence three police officers to 60 days in jail for beating a burglary suspect last week marked a sad day in law enforcement, no matter how you slice it.

It was the first time in Prince George's history that a judge had ordered a police officer jailed for using excessive force while on duty.

The decision stemmed from an incident last October in which a colleague of the three jailed officers charged that he witnessed the officers severely beating a burglary suspect, even after the man was handcuffed and knocked unconscious.

The officers are appealing, but the sight of the three being led away briefly in handcuffs last week was a milestone with bittersweet undertones.

It was a victory for those who have long said that the Prince George's County police force was rife with rogue officers, a reputation that has persisted for decades, particularly in the black community.

But it was also another blow to the notion that the police always represent the best our society has to offer in terms of integrity and discipline.

Whether it's New York City cops engaged in nude Animal House behavior at a Washington hotel, or a blackjack-happy officer brutalizing a citizen, too often we find those charged with protecting us can be a source of fear and intimidation.

And while it is not often that this column ventures outside the county to draw inspiration, the situation in Prince George's seemed significant to me.

By comparison, it not only says something good about Howard County's police department, it should serve as a warning about what can happen in a community that is culturally diverse and growing rapidly.

Howard has approximately 218,00 citizens. The current police force is 338 strong. The ratio of county police to residents, then, is approximately 1 1/2 to 1,000 -- not bad for a county this size.

But it's not size that tells the good news about Howard County.

Through a combination of planning and mere happenstance, the county has been fortunate to avoid the problems in Prince George's, despite its sharing many of the same tensions.

While it was not always the case, in recent years the county has improved its record of hiring minority officers, and today the force pretty much reflects the percentage of minorities in the community.

Police officials insist their recruiting is rigorous, and that salaries and benefits, while not as competitive with some of the larger counties, still attract quality candidates.

The work environment is good, partly due to a relatively low crime rate.

Geography plays a role there, giving Howard the advantage of being directly contiguous to neither Baltimore nor Washington.

But there are cracks in the veneer that seem ominous when one takes into account the county's growth and the overall increase in crime. Howard has its problems, and they could become more pronounced unless something is done now to shore up community confidence and ensure the best force possible.

Three incidents of alleged police brutality have been reported in recent years, the most notable being the so-called Bowie case in which twin brothers accused police of using excessive force against them when breaking up a party in Jessup in 1990.

The case sparked community protests, in part because of the apparent suicide of one of the brothers. Family members questioned the cause of death, but a State Police investigation found no evidence of foul play.

Last year, the county settled a $6.5 million federal lawsuit out of court, under an undisclosed agreement with the family.

Not quite a victory for either side, but it was in line with the kind of situations that, like the incident in Prince George's, erodes public confidence.

It's not that police officers shouldn't be punished when they overstep the law.

As the judge in the Prince George's case said last week, "Once a police officer steps across the line, he is placing himself in the same kind of posture as the thugs who he is seeking to arrest."

The problem is in trying to get back the respect for authority that is lost whenever these incidents occur.

In that sense, the lesson that Prince George's County is learning of late has applicability far beyond its borders.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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