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City discusses policing, Lakeland following national protests

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Posted on: July 13, 2020

By Philip Van Slooten

City councilmembers discussed community policing and College Park’s troubled past with Lakeland’s historic Black community during June meetings and a community forum. While those present at the forum agreed that Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) officers had a good rapport with citizens, the state’s attorney noted that state law poses problems in firing some individuals or prosecuting others.

“The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights gives law enforcement protections from criminal prosecution,” said Aisha Braveboy, the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, at the June 15 community forum. “Some legislators in Annapolis are looking at overhauling this law, which is the most protective in the country. There were some efforts last year, but because of the condensed session, it didn’t move forward. But there seems to be interest in having it move forward now.”

At the June 9 council session, participants discussed police reform and Mayor Patrick Wojahn read a draft resolution in defense of Black lives. Longtime Lakeland resident and historian Maxine Gross narrated a moving presentation documenting the lives and losses endured by the community, particularly during the city’s urban renewal campaign of the 1960s and ‘70s. 

The 8 Can’t Wait project is a police reform initiative promoted by Campaign Zero, which organized following the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after police shot and killed Michael Brown. According to Campaign Zero, this push for concrete police reforms includes banning chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene when they witness misconduct; these measures currently in place in Prince George’s County. (For more information on 8 Can’t Wait, go to 8cantwait.org.)

Capt. Katina Gomez, an assistant commander with PGPD, stated at the June 15 public forum that while their policies have “surpassed the threshold of other police departments in the nation,” current Maryland law does make it difficult for the department to immediately fire officers.

“I think we have, by and large, a really good police department,” Braveboy said at the forum. “However, there are improvements that can be made. I’m still finding far too many instances where particularly Black men are profiled and are treated differently than we would want to be treated if we are stopped.”

At the June 9 council session, Councilmember John Rigg (District 3) supported the 8 Can’t Wait initiative and the draft resolution denouncing systemic racism, adding, “We need to strike the right balance between acknowledging the critical role law enforcement plays, and promoting the goals of social justice and protecting our constitutional rights,” Rigg said. “[The 8 Can’t Wait Initiative] is a pragmatic and forward-looking approach already in common practice in more progressive police departments. A note of caution as we proceed is I don’t want us to overlook the critical role of law enforcement in keeping our community safe.”

The state’s attorney and community members present echoed Riggs’ support of current community policing efforts in College Park, in particular. Participants also expressed concern about national calls to defund police programs and reallocate those funds to social services in economically challenged communities. 

“I don’t care what anyone says, defunding our police is a disaster,” said Councilmember Robert Day (District 3). “We need to work with our law enforcement agencies to get the solution right. I think a town hall is something we need to have. We need to look at this as a holistic solution for College Park … [by] having a real conversation.”

Mayor Wojahn and other councilmembers agreed that a town hall meeting could serve as a constructive step to promote discussions about policing and Lakeland restorative initiatives with the community. 

“I’m not looking for anything complicated,” said Lakeland resident Pastor Stephen L. Wright Sr. of the First Baptist Church of College Park. “I’m just asking that [police] see me as a person. But the land-use issue in Lakeland … You’re talking about a truly historic community. Two historic churches sitting there, and we feel boxed in. I hope this extends out further from this forum because more is going to be needed. There are people who are hurting.”

Councilmember Fazlul Kabir (District 1) said that a community policing meeting will be held on the second Monday of every month and that the city council is planning another public forum. He noted that faith leaders will hold an interfaith prayer vigil, as well. 

Wojahn added that the prayer vigil is scheduled for June 23, and a public forum on policing and systemic racism is scheduled for June 29. He also invited more discussion on the city’s treatment of the Lakeland community.

“I’m not an expert on the history,” he cautioned. “But we do have experts.”

“This is just the beginning,” Councilmember Denise Mitchell (District 4) at the close of the June 15 forum. “We have a lot to work on as a community in College Park, but we will prevail.”

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