Oversight of police to change July 1: County scrambles to get it right
BY HEATHER WRIGHT – 6/3/2022
Who should police the police — and how? Since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, communities have been increasingly wrestling with how to hold law enforcement accountable.
The county council’s dilemma
A new Maryland law revamping citizen review of police misconduct and police discipline goes into effect on July 1.
The Prince George’s County Council has been torn between complying with the July 1 deadline and allowing time for meaningful public feedback and participation.
Following April 26 and May 9 council meetings that afforded little public notice and limited time for speakers, councilmembers heard extensive public testimony, including emotionally wrenching stories about police brutality in the county, during a May 25 listening session and a May 31 county council meeting.
Dorothy Copp Elliott spoke of officers fatally shooting her son, Archie Elliott III, 14 times during a traffic stop in 1993. “Not any part of my life has been untouched since losing my 24-year-old son,” said Elliott. “We deserve better, and we demand better.”
Critics of the county’s attempts to comply with state law, including the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability and the related Prince George’s County Coalition for Police Accountability, say the process has lacked transparency and community engagement. They are concerned that one person, the county executive, has an inordinate say in determining the members of new police oversight groups. They also want the new oversight groups to reflect the demographics of communities that have the most police encounters. And they want to ensure that the groups have adequate funding and staffing.
Following public testimony on May 31, councilmembers leaned towards slowing down the legislative process. Councilmember Deni Taveras (District 2) asked about the consequences of missing the July 1 deadline. County Attorney Rhonda Weaver responded that because internal investigations averaged between 30 to 90 days in duration and the county was obviously working towards compliance with state law, there was some flexibility, and she did not foresee that a penalty would be imposed.
County Council Vice Chair Sydney Harrison (District 9) recounted when police slapped him to the ground, put a gun to the back of his head, and scraped his face for using a pay phone in 1992. “We’re going to get this right,” he said. “We have to build trust back within this county.”
Councilmember Todd Turner (District 4) motioned to hold the legislation until June 6 to consider further amendments and also emphasized the need “to take our time, get it right.”
In a follow-up June 1 email, Beverly John, coordinator of the Prince George’s County Coalition for Police Accountability, said that while the May listening session and council meeting were productive, the coalition remained concerned about the possibility of law enforcement sitting on the new police oversight groups. “This is a conflict of interest and presents undue law enforcement influence into the civilian process,” she wrote. According to John, the coalition also insists that oversight groups should have independent investigatory and subpoena powers. “If not, the police agency internal affairs departments are investigating, and we are left once again with police investigating themselves,” she noted.
A brief overview of civilian oversight in the county
For over 30 years, the Prince George’s County Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel (CCOP) has independently reviewed the processing and investigations of misconduct complaints against officers of the Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD), including 105 complaints in 2019. Currently, the PGPD employs more than 1,500 officers.
The county set up the CCOP after Gregory Kafi Habib died, in 1989, at the hands of police during a traffic stop. Since 2001, the CCOP has had the power (although not always the resources) to conduct its own investigations and issue subpoenas through the county council. They submit findings and suggestions to the PGPD chief and provide annual reports to the public.
The Prince George’s County Police Reform Work Group, created by County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in the wake of Floyd’s murder, laid out a number of recommendations for civilian oversight in their 2020 report, including increasing the CCOP staff and budget, expanding its membership and promoting diversity, and requiring the PGPD police chief to give more weight to CCOP recommendations.
However, there has not been civilian oversight of the more than 40 other law enforcement agencies that operate in the county, including the county sheriff’s office, municipal police forces like the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) and the University of Maryland Police Department.
The new oversight system (under construction)
July 1 is the deadline for the county to dissolve the CCOP and replace it with a county police accountability board (PAB), an administrative charging committee (ACC) and trial boards, which collectively would have authority over law enforcement agencies in the county.
The county’s 11-member PAB will focus on the big picture: meeting quarterly with heads of law enforcement agencies to review discipline decisions and trends, generating an annual report, and appointing members to the ACC and trial boards.
After July 1, complaints of police misconduct against a member of the public go to the accountability board. Within three days of receiving a complaint, the PAB must forward it to the appropriate law enforcement agency, which would conduct an internal investigation.
The results of such an investigation will then go to the county’s five-member ACC. This committee will include a PAB representative and four citizens.
These five people will determine whether or not the officer in question should be charged. If charges will be brought, the ACC would also recommend disciplinary actions. Actions would be determined based on state-wide standards. (As of press time, the county had not yet received a list of these standards from the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission.) In the current draft of the county’s legislation, the ACC can also require additional investigation and issue subpoenas.
After receiving a charge against an officer from the ACC, the head of the officer’s law enforcement agency is required to offer the officer the ACC-recommended (or a higher level of) disciplinary action.
If the officer rejects the disciplinary action, the case goes to a three-member trial board composed of a county judge, a civilian and a police officer of the same rank as the charged officer.
The county’s newly formed ACC will review investigations of PGPD officers along with those of officers from other law enforcement agencies across the county.
The CCOP has a budget of $404,000 for fiscal year 2022. The combined proposed FY2023 budgets for the new accountability board and charging committee would be $1.4 million.
According to county documents, the county attorney general will review what are called gap cases — police misconduct complaints filed after the CCOP is dissolved but before the new process is up and running.