By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
mgray@afro.com

The loudest calls for police reform rose above the chants to defund local departments when a coalition of minority officers proposed sweeping changes in Prince George’s County.

Just over a month following the resignation of former Prince George’s County police chief Hank Stawinski, a group of current and retired Black and Hispanic officers proposed suggestions reviewing the Department’s procedures where allegations of “racism and retaliation” towards them were standard operating procedure.  The “Police Reform Work Group” is currently suing the Department, which led to the abrupt change in leadership last month as calls to defund police departments began growing louder around the country and throughout the D.M.V. during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the death of George Floyd.

The Police Reform Work Group is suing the Prince George’s County Police Department, calling for major reform and offering recommendations for improving the effectiveness and fair treatment within the Department. (Courtesy Photo)

The group submitted a 10-page letter to the new task force that was created by County Executive Angela N. Alsobrooks to study and review department policies covering “the full inspection of its operations”.  The Police Reform Work Group developed a list of 12 recommendations that were presented hours before a virtual listening session with the task force on July 23.

“I’m from this County, I live in this County. So, I’m invested in this County. I care about the citizens of this County,” said Lt. Sonya Zollecoffer, a member of the Prince George’s County Police Department.  “Sometimes I feel ashamed because of the Police Department. I feel ashamed of that uniform.”

Their proposed reforms featured ideas that include residency requirements for new hires, a greater commitment to affirmative action laws, anti discrimination training and random internal reviews. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released the 12 recommendations before this virtual public forum.   

Specifically, the proposed reforms would include hiring more officers of color and requiring police leadership to live in the County.  It also calls for the end of the “blue wall of silence” by encouraging officers to stop and report their improper behavior by other officers, which is the first step in rebuilding the public’s trust.

“Instead of getting punished for reporting misconduct, officers should get called out when they fail to report,” said Zollicoffer, who is also vice president of the United Black Police Officers Association. “There should be training on how to be … effective in diffusing a situation when an officer is out of line and how to report that conduct.”

“It is not enough to say that it’s not allowed,” she said. The County needs to follow up and make sure that misconduct “is not happening.”

A group of current and retired Prince George’s County police officers are suing the Department for discrimination and retaliation. It was the ACLU report in June, which detailed a pattern of discrimination against officers of color that was the final straw in Stawinski’s tenure once the County’s chapter of the NAACP voted no confidence.  

“I saw that we were hiring people that weren’t from the community,” said Lt. Thomas Boone, with the United Black Police Officers Association, a former member of the force. “Those people lacked understanding of what the community needed.”

Despite Stawinski’s departure, there are still critics who are frustrated by the lengthy reform process.  Many who feel their careers have been directly impacted by the previous discrimination want swifter action. However, Alsobrooks is asking for patience as the task force continues it’s process.

The task force is composed of residents and public leaders from the County’s police and public defender’s departments, public schools and the citizen complaint oversight panel. It’s being co-chaired by Circuit Court Judge Maureen Lamasney and Prince George’s County Delegate Alonzo Washington (D- District 22). They are expected to complete and submit a report with their recommendations to Alsobrooks by October 30.

Here’s a full list of roposed reforms:

  •  Adopt enhanced Affirmative Action Plan.
  • Incentive phased-in residency for all officers.
  • Overhaul policies and practices to remove racial bias.
  • Implement regular, targeted and random internal reviews and integrity audits.
  • Adopt recommendations discussed by Fairness Panel in 2017.
  • Improve diversity in specialty units.
  • Adopt a office-bystander intervention program.
  • Enforce anti-retaliation and no contact provisions.
  • Monitor Internal Affairs Division and report on bias and discrimination.
  • Revise the Equal Employment Opportunity complaint policy to ensure confidentiality.
  • Mandate annual anti-discrimination, anti-retaliation, anti-harassment, and implicit bias training.
  • Appoint a senior, full time Chief Compliance Officer.