By Josh Spector and Kera Ritter
WASHINGTON – The Rev. Robert Williams is bracing himself for what could be a tough political battle.
Williams is disturbed by escalating claims in Prince George’s County of police harassment, excessive force and abusive language. He points out that no citizens sit on the police trial boards charged with reviewing the complaints and deciding the officers’ fate.
He wants that to change and is contacting county leaders to try to press them into action.
“I’m not saying that the trial boards are not fair, but having citizen representation would make the appearance of fairness much stronger,” said Williams, who heads a Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel that issues annual reports on the problem.
But getting a citizen on Prince George’s County police trial boards could be an uphill battle.
The county’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 2,100 police officers, is dead set against the idea.
“Our officers should go before a board of their peers because only they fully understand the level of stress, fear and danger that police officers face every day,” said John Bartlet, president of the county FOP, Lodge 89.
County Executive Wayne Curry, who has the power to put a citizen on the board, has not committed to doing so.
His spokesman, Reggie Sparks, said Curry is waiting to make a decision until after he receives recommendations from county public safety director Fred Thomas and Prince George’s County Police Chief John Farrell. Thomas, Farrell and Williams are meeting in coming weeks, Sparks said.
Curry’s decision should come by early spring, Sparks said.
Members of the state legislature could also introduce a bill to put a citizen on police trial boards. But state Del. Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George’s, who introduced unsuccessful legislation in 1985 and 1986 to do so, said getting a bill passed would be difficult.
The 1986 bill was withdrawn by the county delegation before it came to a vote because there was not enough support for it, Exum said.
“I am not so sure we could get a law passed now because we still face the same obstacles as we did then,” Exum said. “The Judiciary Committee tends to be very pro-police.”
But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, state Del. Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, said a statewide measure “would have a lot more support. I think the confusion before was that the bill gave a black eye to Prince George’s County.”
And a citizen member for the trial boards is picking up some support.
Fred Joseph, legal director of the Prince George’s County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he would like to see more citizens involved “so it’s not just the police reviewing the police.” He added, “There are citizens on medical review boards, on lawyers’ panels, so why not this one?”
Hardi Jones, president of the Prince George’s County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said a citizen on the board would bring it credibility.
Statistics from a June 1994 report released by the county’s Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel show complaints against the police have been increasing in recent years.
In 1991, 60 complaints of excessive force, abusive language and/or harassment were filed with the county police Internal Affairs Department. The number rose to 75 in 1992, 90 in 1993 and 109 in 1994.
The report also shows that most complaints never make it to the trial board. The county Internal Affairs Department dismisses them if it believes there is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
Cases in recent years that have made it to a trial board have never found an officer guilty of wrongdoing, the 1994 report said.
Of the 334 complaints of excessive force, abusive language and harassment filed against the police department between 1991 and 1994, 27 were referred by Internal Affairs to trial boards.
Eight of those were settled before a trial board reached a final decision. Of the remaining 19 cases, nine boards reached not-guilty verdicts against the officers. The outcome of 10 cases from 1994 was not available from the panel or the police department because many of them have not been decided, said Maj. Ophus Robertson, commander of inspectional services for the Prince George’s County Police Department.
“The fact that so few complaints went before trial boards does not really concern us,” said Williams, the 56-year-old pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, Md. “What concerns us is that of the ones that went to trial boards – none of the officers are getting any punishment.”
Bartlet defended the boards’ rulings, and said they are “held very fairly.” He said the public would better understand the not-guilty verdicts if they saw the hearings.
“Every trial board hearing is held open to the public and I think that if people came and watched many of these hearings they would be surprised at what they saw,” Bartlet said.
Three police officers – a police major, a captain and one of equal rank to the accused – now sit on each trial board, Robertson said. If they find a preponderance of evidence of guilt, they can render punishments ranging from fines to termination of employment, he said.
Jones said an unwritten code of silence keeps officers from convicting each other. His concerns have been echoed by Reps. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, and Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore.
Wynn and Mfume and 24 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in September asking the Justice Department to investigate claims of civil rights violations by police officers in several cities, including Prince George’s County.
The FBI is now investigating the case of Jeffrey C. Gilbert, who accused county police of using excessive force when they arrested him in April. Gilbert was charged with the shooting death of police Officer John Novabilski, but the charges were later dropped.
Despite the increase in complaints, Bartlet said the real problem lies with Williams’ panel. Bartlet said it encourages people to make unnecessary complaints.
But Jones attributes the rise to an increased willingness of residents to file complaints, which he says is a positive step.