Prince George's County has settled a lawsuit brought by officers of color who alleged racial discrimination, retaliation and unfair promotion practices within the Prince George's County Police Department.
A settlement was reached this past weekend after a 2 1/2 year battle and more than $17 million in taxpayer dollars spent by County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’ administration.
Most of the funds went to legal fees for Venable LLP, the private law firm hired by the county to defend against the lawsuit.
Lawmakers, community activists and residents urged Alsobrooks to settle the lawsuit. A petition to do so was recently started.
News4 broke news of the lawsuit when it was filed in December 2018 and has reported developments throughout the ongoing fight.
The lawsuit detailed internal practices that allowed for the unfair advancement of white officers and harsher discipline for officers of color.
Federal Judge Theodore Chuang ordered a halt and massive overhaul to the police department's promotion process in April.
“PGCPD has been aware of the significant disparities in promotion rates based on race dating back at least to 2012 but has done virtually nothing to address them. Even when the 2017 panel identified specific issues that could be examined in order to address the adverse impact of the promotion process, it did nothing,” Chuang said.
The county's attorney, Rhonda Weaver, disagreed with the judge and released a statement in April claiming the promotion system was fair, saying in part, “The County and the Department are committed to ensuring that their professionally-developed promotion system continues to result in the promotion of the best qualified officers — of all races, ethnic groups, and backgrounds."
According to the ACLU of Maryland, the settlement includes policy changes to end biases in policing, significant discipline for officers who commit racists acts against other officers or members of the community, and an end to discrimination and retaliation against Black and Latinx officers who challenge police abuse.
The county spent millions fighting the release of a report filed as part of the lawsuit. It detailed acts of alleged racism and retaliation, and a lack of oversight within the department. Former police chief Hank Stawinski stepped down after the redacted version of the report went public.
After an unredacted version of the report was released, former internal affairs commander Kathleen Mills retired. When another incident of white officers retaliating against Black officer whistle-blowers went public, Alsobrooks asked former chief administrative officer for public safety Mark McGaw to resign. All were named as defendants in the lawsuit.
As the county fought the lawsuit, Alsobrooks called for police reform. A task force recommended 50 changes in an effort to overhaul policing in the county. A national search resulted in the hiring of a new chief, Malik Aziz, of Dallas. Alsobrooks said she felt the department would benefit from leadership from outside the department.
In multiple interviews, Alsobrooks told News4 her efforts to reform the county's police department were a separate issue from the lawsuit and it was her fiduciary duty to defend the county against litigation.
Prince George's County Police Lt. Thomas Boone, President of the United Black Police Officers Association said in a statement, “I am pleased that all the main players who were a particular problem are now gone and the new chief provides an opportunity for change. This is an important step, but the work is not over."
Retired county police captain Joe Perez, who is president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, said, “The settlement with all the policy changes speaks volumes. People lost their jobs, some were demoted, some were driven out, and community members were killed. It is my hope that our personal sacrifices will lead to positive change both for the officers and for the communities they serve, so that everyone can be treated with dignity and respect."
As a part of the settlement, there will be additional monitoring to ensure the department is in compliance with new mandates, according to a statement from the ACLU of Maryland.
Throughout the lawsuit, Weaver, the county attorney, released statements standing by the department and saying there was no wrongdoing. The county hired former Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger to do a report countering the report commissioned by officers. Manger found that Prince George's County police disciplined officers and performed investigations using best practices.
In February, Weaver released a statement saying in part, “Prince George’s County will continue to vigorously defend the employment discrimination lawsuit brought by HNLEA and ACLU against the Prince George’s County Police Department. Based on the facts, the County believes that the HNLEA lawsuit is without merit and that there was not a policy or custom of discrimination within the department."
The county police department has a long history of documented discriminatory behavior. It resulted in years of U.S. Justice Department oversight in the 2000s and the establishment of a citizen complaint oversight panel to review investigations of excessive force and police misconduct.
For many years, though, recommendations made by the panel were largely not implemented by department leadership, according to the panel's reports.
The settlement calls for policy changes, including protection against biased policing, reforms to promotion processes and changes to how police are disciplined.
According to a statement from the ACLU of Maryland, "Other provisions of the Settlement Agreement allocate approximately $2.3 Million among the individual and organizational plaintiffs to compensate them for past discrimination and retaliation they experienced. The Agreement provides that the County will reimburse the attorneys from the Washington Lawyers Committee, the ACLU of Maryland, and Arnold & Porter, a D.C. law firm who litigated the lawsuit, for the $825,000 in expenses they advanced, and will also pay them $5 million in legal fees as provided in federal civil rights cases. The fees will be used by all three groups to fund future pro bono cases and to fund other charitable causes.”
Groups representing officers of color also filed a complaint with the Justice Department's civil rights division. It is still under investigation. More than 100 officers signed on to that complaint, according to the officers who filed it.
“We were committed to stand together for change,” said Sonya Zollicoffer, a retired lieutenant and vice president of the United Black Police Officers Association.