LANGLEY PARK, Md. — Claiming widespread discrimination, a dozen police officers of color in Prince George’s County have filed a federal lawsuit against the county and its police chief. They claim that racial bias has intensified under the leadership of Chief Hank Stawinski and they want to see policy changes.
“This administration has targeted every one of us,” said President of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Officer’s Association, Joe Perez, who worked in internal affairs for the department for years.
As he rose through the ranks and saw more officers of color treated differently than white officers, he began to report it, he said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
“When I see somebody calling an African American citizen the N-word; when there’s text messages about officers going into an African American community and then sending a text, ‘We ought to bring back public hangings,’ they’re not being transparent about that,” Perez said referring to the police department leadership.
The Prince George’s County Police department has declined to offer comment on the lawsuit.
The federal lawsuit filed Dec. 12 in Greenbelt, Maryland, lists a dozen officers, Perez’s organization and the United Black Police Officers Association as complainants. The group is demanding monetary compensation for individual damages, policy changes in the department and a change in leadership. The suit lists the county, Stawinski, former Chief Mark Magaw and two department leaders, Major Kathleen Mills and Deputy Chief Christopher Murtha as defendants.
The Justice Department announced last year its Civil Rights Division was investigating allegations that the department’s black and Hispanic officers were discriminated against.
The complainants said specifically that the racial bias has worsened recently, including under the new administration of County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.
Alsobrooks has been on the job for a week and three days. She said she wants a chance to review the allegations.
“I look forward to learning not just from these officers but from others what the experience has been and to analyze it fresh as county executive,” Alsobrooks said.
In her previous role as state’s attorney, Alsobrooks said she was never approached by anyone to have a conversation about racial discrimination of any kind in the police department.
“I’ve had no authority over the police department to this point to even have a discussion with the officers. This is the first opportunity I would have as county executive to hear the allegations and to take action,” Alsobrooks said.
Along with racially charged conversations and racially motivated transfers and demotions, the suit also alleges unconstitutional hiring practices. Complainant Thomas Boone said he was transferred immediately after he filed a written complaint about what he believed to be an unjust pattern in the department’s application and hiring practices.
“What I was seeing, people of color, there were certain tactics being used to not hire them,” Boone said. “And when I spoke up, I was just recently transferred. It’s ongoing. It’s not a past administration. It’s this administration.”
“The minute you open up your mouth and say, ‘Hey that’s wrong,’ you’re not a team player … You’re a snitch,” said Bob Ross with the NAACP of Prince George’s County. “You broke the blue wall of silence,” Perez said.
Stawinski and his administration have declined to meet with minority groups, Ross said. A panel set up to look at the department’s promotion practices hasn’t met in a year, he said.
In its post about the lawsuit, the ACLU of Maryland wrote in part: “Chief Stawinski has nurtured an environment where racist conduct that is unacceptable in today’s society is allowed to persist and flourish. White officers are let off the hook for misconduct against the community, while officers of color face serious consequences in retaliation for taking a stand against abuse.”