Prince George’s County pledges ‘unprecedented’ police reforms

Officials in Prince George’s County are pledging to implement dozens of recommendations from a police reform task, including updating the department’s use-of-force policy to say officers have a duty to intervene if they see another office using illegal force and creating a new office of integrity led by an independent inspector general.

County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced the county’s plan to implement the reforms during a news conference Friday afternoon, saying the action “puts Prince George’s County at the very front of a national movement for accountability.”

Overall, the county is implementing 46 of the 50 recommendations proposed by the task force, which Alsobrooks formed in July amid the nationwide push for police reform after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“Our community and our nation have grappled, for the last several decades, with inexcusable instances of police brutality against minorities,” she said. “And we are working to ensure that our police department respects the dignity and reflects the values of every single member of our community.”

Alsobrooks added that the moves aim to make “major changes to reform the way our law enforcement engages with the community.”

As part of that effort, the county is updating the department’s use-of-force procedures. “If an officer sees an illegal use of force occurring, he has a duty to stop that use of force,” she said.

Interim Prince George’s County police Chief Hector Velez said new training is already underway that teaches officers how to intervene when they see another officer “that is engaging in misconduct or about to make a mistake.”

Pioneered by Georgetown Law School, the training approach is called Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, and builds on another innovative policing strategy called EPIC, for Ethical Policing is Courageous.

Overall, Velez, who took over the department in June after former Chief Hank Stawinski stepped down amid a lawsuit alleging racial bias and hiring discrimination within the department, vowed that his department was committed to carrying out the task force’s recommendations.

“The men and women of the Prince George’s County Police Department will work on these recommendations, and they will get them done. And they will accept them. And that’s not because I’m saying they will, but because that is their character,” Velez said.

‘Unprecedented transparency’

Among the other changes Alsobrooks said the county is putting into place: establishing a new Office of Integrity and Compliance, led by an independent inspector general with investigative staff, including a race-gender equity director.

The inspector general will not report to the police chief but to the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for public safety and homeland security.

The new office will disentangle the current inspector general from the PGPD leadership by making way for more robust auditing and inspections of the department, said state Del. Alonzo Washington, who co-chaired the police reform task force alongside retired county Circuit Court Judge Maureen Lamasney.

The office will submit annual reports of the internal operations to the police department to the county executive, the county council and the public, Washington said.

“It will be truly transparent,” he added.

In further transparency measures, the county will create a “more robust” citizen complaint oversight panel with a greater impact on the department’s conduct, and launch a publicly available dashboard tracking traffic stops and subsequent police actions, information on no-knock and nighttime search warrants, and the use of flash bangs.

“This level of transparency by a police department, you should know, is absolutely unprecedented,” Alsobrooks said.

Restructuring school security personnel

Also on the agenda is the aim to “dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline” by reducing the number of school security personnel and removing their arrest powers, and reinvesting $17 million in prevention and intervention program.

School security personnel are separate from school resource officers. The security personnel essentially amounts to Prince George’s County Public Schools’ own police force and has grown to 260 members, 90 of whom have arrest powers.

The task force didn’t recommend expelling school resource officers, but trimming their ranks, Washington said. “We believe there’s a place for our officers to help build relations with our young people,” he said.

The focus is on making sure “that we don’t over-police our students, but we provide protection and safety of our students,” Washington said.

The county also plans to overhaul its crisis response system to include new training, a mobile crisis team and the opening of a mental health crisis facility, which was financed by a bond issue last fall.

“This will help our community keep residents with mental illnesses out of our jails and instead provide them the opportunity to get the help they need when they need it most,” Alsobrooks said.

Among the four recommendations the county rejected was a proposal to study transferring traffic enforcement from police to the county’s revenue authority.

Over the course of six months last summer and fall, the police reform task force held 17 public meetings and two community listening sessions at which more than 550 county residents participated before issuing a 105-page report late last year.

Washington said the task force’s findings showed serious problems within the department, including a lack of transparency about community complaints and high levels of misconduct and excessive force. But he said he was heartened by the county’s response.

“We have a great police department and police officers,” Washington said. “However, they are working within a historically flawed system.

Of the county’s commitment to implement the task force’s recommendations, Washington said, “I think this is a great step in the right direction for our county. This is just the very first step, and we have a long road to go. And the county executive is committed, and our interim chief is committed.”

Regarding the search for a permanent leader of the police force, Prince George’s County Council Chair Calvin Hawkins voiced support for Velez.

“Chief Velez, I’ve watched you lead under these circumstances, and I only can say to you: You are the leader that this county police department needs at this time,” Hawkins said Friday.

Alsobrooks said the county has a “very talented interim chief,” and said she hoped to conclude the search process in the next few weeks.

“I promised the community that we would conduct a comprehensive process and I’m following through with my promise,” Alsobrooks said.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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