Submitted to the AFRO by George H. Lambert, President & CEO of Greater Washington Urban League

A recent lawsuit filed by Prince George’s County police officers along with key area civil rights groups shows us something that is an all too familiar narrative in the fabric of American life: there are not only increasing tensions between law enforcement and the diverse, particularly Black and Brown, citizens they are sworn to protect, but many of the officers themselves are engaged in behavior that can only be characterized as active targeting of both residents and fellow officers of color.

This is what’s alleged in the complaint filed as part of a joint legal effort between the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the United Black Police Officers Association, in conjunction with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and law firm Arnold & Porter providing support.

We’ve seen this trend accelerating like wildfire throughout the rest of the nation. It is the routine racial profiling of diverse citizens and the alarmingly incessant rate at which Black citizens are targeted by false 911 calls and, more tragically, police officers who are more inclined to gun down unarmed Black people than dangerous, armed white men committing mass murder. Hence, we are sadly adapting to a world whereby an innocent Black man is shot by a police officer in his own apartment for simply being there – while an armed-to-the-teeth white man, for example, murders 11 people in a synagogue then injures several officers afterwards … and survives his encounter with responding police.

In some ways the Washington, D.C. community, particularly places like majority-Black Prince George’s County, considers itself relatively insulated from these trends.  Perhaps, because 65 percent of county residents are Black, it enjoys a Black-led government, and because it possesses the highest concentration of middle-class to affluent African Americans (including African and Caribbean migrants) in the nation. As a result, there is an occasional tendency to assume Prince George’s County, Maryland could never turn into Ferguson, Missouri.

What’s alleged in this latest lawsuit, however, warns us against complacency. These are also familiar concerns. While the complaints from Black and Latino officers provide a fresh glimpse into the inner workings and racially-charged psyche of the county’s police department, they are not new. Maryland has the 5th largest Black statewide population in the country, according to Census figures, and yet state and local law enforcement are not proportional to various city and county demographics. In Prince George’s County, while 65 percent of the population is Black, only 43 percent of the police force is the same. Meanwhile, Whites are over-represented: while White residents account for just under 27 percent of the county’s population, they constitute 47 percent of county police officers.

That doesn’t look like culturally competent policing.  If anything, it’s culturally lopsided. And it’s one obvious ingredient creating an unnecessary breakdown in trust from residents and officers of color.  This reality should prompt county leaders and the county police chief to take immediate and dramatic steps toward achieving racial parity in the police department.

In meeting that goal, the county must be a lot more transparent with the police department’s data than it’s ever been.  Those numbers aren’t available on the agency website for all residents to access when they should be.  We also don’t know how many county officers live within the community they patrol versus the number of officers who don’t. A comprehensive annual report which includes crucial information such as officer demographic data, the percentage of officers who live within the county and a tally of citizen complaints and officer-involved shootings would be an important first step in the right direction.  Prince George’s County residents shouldn’t have to wait for a lawsuit or a Justice Department probe to finally access information on how their local law enforcement agency works.

Diversity recruitment efforts should also be an immediate and top priority for the department, with a mission towards matching agency demographics to community demographics.  Transparency around that effort is also key, but greater inclusion of the general public in that process, including collaboration with local non-profits and community institutions would be essential.  Diversity by itself is not the complete key; research, such as a 2004 National Research Council study and a 2006 Fayetteville State University study, offer a mixed picture on outcomes. But diversity, when combined with a mission to ensure racially proportional agency leadership and the aggressive training of officers, is proven to help substantially.

Perhaps it’s time to also revisit residency requirements for Prince George’s County police officers.

Research on the effectiveness of residency requirements in major police departments is still ongoing.  But there are clear economic, social and political benefits. There is consensus around an urgent need to design a police department that is as familiar as possible with the community it patrols and protects. Even if there is no appetite for a mandatory residency provision, the department should re-examine its efforts to not only recruit diverse candidates, but to give more priority to county residents and to also encourage others to live in the county.  Should policymakers and police unions disagree with that proposal then perhaps its worth looking into creative versions. For example, it could be viewed as a major “option” with incentives. Or there could be “tours of duty” in which non-resident officers become stakeholders by rooming briefly in the districts they patrol.

It will be a long and difficult process to eliminate any form of racial discrimination in the Prince George’s County police department.  But it will be necessary, especially during the age we live in. Plus, it’s just smart governance.  County law enforcement should be much more proactive at addressing these issues given rising tensions and current events. It has no choice and it is duty bound to do so.

George H. Lambert, President & CEO of Greater Washington Urban League.

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