Panelists speak at Next Steps symposium at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. (Photo by Linda Poulson)

About 80 Prince George’s County residents gathered at a forum dedicated to discussing police accountability on Oct. 1. The discussion comes in the wake of several incidents in the county where Black men and women were either murdered or suffered abuse from authorities.

The Maryland Police Accountability: NEXT STEPS symposium was held at Prince Georges Community College (PGCC). The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Prince Georges County Branch of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Prince Georges County, and the Prince Georges County People’s Coalition hosted the event.

“African Americans have been fighting for, and struggling with, when we first arrived on the shores of Fort Comfort, Virginia in 1619, we’ve been struggling for our humanity, we have been struggling to be recognized as human beings,” Wilmer Leon, moderator and radio host with Sirius XM, said at the event. “It’s much easier to shoot someone down in the street like a dog when you don’t see them as a human being. Focus on my color, fail to see my humanity.”

Speakers on the symposium panel included Cary Hansel, Hansel Law PC; Toni Holness, ACLU-Md.; Dorothy Elliott, victim advocate; Christian Gant, Next Step Coalition; Matthew Fogg, Congress Against Racism and Corruption in Law Enforcement; Bob Ross, Prince Georges NAACP; and Dr. Johnnie Jones, professor, PGCC.

“If the war on drugs was an equal opportunity enforcement operation, the federal government would have ended it four decades ago,” Fogg said. “It has become a race war against people of color. It is America’s number one human rights violation.”

Leon spoke on the series of articles by the {Washington Post} in 2001, which analyzed the use of force by county police back as far as 1990. The data indicated that officers shot 122 people; 47 were killed, the highest rate of any major city or county in the country. The vast majority of those killed were Black; many had committed no crime, and 45 percent were unarmed.

But much has changed in Prince Georges County on police matters since then, he noted. “However improvements are still needed. According to the {Baltimore Sun, ACLU reported that 21 people died after police encounters in 2010-2014 in Prince George’s County.

“The county is full of lawyers, doctors and other well-educated professionals,” Leon said. “But when it comes to policing or being policed, in the minds of too many of those who have sworn to protect and serve, these residents are considered well-paid niggers with degrees and are treated accordingly. The history is clear.” He added misconceptions of African Americans, poor police training, and the crimunal justice system failing to hold police accountable are just three factors that bring iniquity to many.

“We need to get out there this type of awareness, about this issue, because otherwise people will not come out,” said Marion Gray-Hopkins, who joined the panel. Her son, Gary Albert Hopkins Jr., 19, was shot and killed by county police officer Brian C. Catlett, 26, in 1999.

“They’re looking for protection, for whistle blowers. When I come out to these events this is a nice crowd,” she said. “When we go down to Annapolis to talk to those who make decisions, there’s only a handful of us. This is important, because it could be anyone of our sisters, brothers, fathers. If they don’t see us there, they feel it doesn’t mean anything to us.”