Justice Dept., Prince George's settle on reform

Pacts end four-year probe into police brutality

Key changes in county ordered

Force to adopt new policy on use of dogs, firearms

January 23, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

PALMER PARK - Concluding a four-year civil rights probe into allegations of police brutality in Prince George's County, the U.S. Department of Justice announced yesterday that it has reached agreements ordering sweeping reforms to the suburban Washington police agency that has earned notoriety for its excessive use of force.

The agreements, signed by Justice Department and county officials at Prince George's County police headquarters here, require the 1,400-officer force to adopt new policies on the use of police dogs and firearms and a tougher system of review for alleged misconduct and shootings by officers. Federal officials and an independent monitor will keep close watch on the police department for at least two years to ensure compliance.

"These agreements will help lift a cloud that has hung over this department for many years," R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said at a news conference.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a former state's attorney elected in 2002 on a platform of police reform, said the county would move aggressively to implement the changes, many of which he said were put in place during the investigation.

"This is a wonderful day for Prince George's County," he said. "This is a milestone."

The agreements close two Justice Department probes. The first began in 1999 after a string of vicious attacks by police dogs on suspects who were already handcuffed or subdued.

The department launched a second investigation in October 2000, after officers shot 12 people in the space of about a year, killing five of them. In one case, an undercover officer followed a Howard University student he mistook for a suspect into Virginia and fatally shot him in the back five times.

Over the past three years, officials said yesterday, Prince George's County has paid $10 million in jury awards and settlements in brutality lawsuits.

The county's reputation for questionable police tactics dates back at least three decades to so-called "death squads" that helped set up robberies in which suspects were killed by waiting police. The brutality complaints have become particularly embarrassing as Prince George's evolved into the country's wealthiest majority-black suburb, with an African-American county executive and police chief.

Yesterday's action places the county's police department among 13 law-enforcement agencies nationally operating under civil rights agreements, including the Detroit and Los Angeles police and the New Jersey state troopers.

The Prince George's agreements call for a change in policies and practices and involve no admission of wrongdoing and no penalties. They do not affect criminal investigations into the actions of individual officers or civil lawsuits by alleged victims of brutality.

Critics of the department sounded cautiously hopeful yesterday, embracing the agreements as a way past years of strained relations between police and residents.

"It's a great idea if they continue to hold people to it," said Terrell N. Roberts III, a Riverdale attorney who says he has filed more than 40 suits on behalf of alleged brutality victims in the county in the last decade. "But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating."

June White Dillard, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had long sounded alarms about excessive force, struck a similar note. "We are satisfied as long as the police department will follow through on each and every recommendation," she said. "It is imperative that they get police misconduct under control."

But Percel O. Alston, president-elect of the county police union, worried that the quantity of new requirements to document the details of dog attacks and firearm usage could strain the resources of a short-staffed police force. "It will mean less time on the streets," he said.

The Justice Department reached two agreements with the county: a court-enforceable consent decree dealing with police dogs and a memorandum of agreement on the use of force by officers. Federal officials said they stopped short of their most serious option - suing the department - because of their confidence in the county's ability to reform itself.

The agreements require the department, among other things, to document every canine attack and train dogs to bark rather than bite as a first step in subduing suspects. They also call for police restraint in confronting suspects, a new review board for police shootings and improvements to a computer database that gives early warnings about problem units and officers.

County officials have launched reform campaigns time and again over the years. They have hired consultants, set up citizen advisory councils and announced shake-ups in response to critics as disparate as former Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Amnesty International.

The county police chief since May, Melvin C. High, said the agreements would build on that progress.

Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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