LANDOVER – With heightened attention on police shootings across the country, police departments throughout Prince George’s County have attempted to bridge the gap between the public and their local law officials. However, residents and elected leaders in the county question if there is enough being done to ensure resident safety. Nationally, questions have arisen about […]
LANDOVER – With heightened attention on police shootings across the country, police departments throughout Prince George’s County have attempted to bridge the gap between the public and their local law officials.
However, residents and elected leaders in the county question if there is enough being done to ensure resident safety. Nationally, questions have arisen about department diversity, the quality of community policing and “broken windows policing,” but Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) Chief Hank Stawinski thinks it is unfair to compare his department to those across America.
“Prince George’s County Police Department has the capacity to do things differently. We have access to equipment, training and a national debate that not everybody has access to. So, there aren’t exact parallels,” he said. “In a country with 333-some million people and about a million police officers, the 68 million-some interactions that police officers have every day with the public – we then devolve an entire conversation about that level of engagement down a handful of incidents.”
Those incidents, which have gained attention in recent months, involve officers across the country who have shot, wounded or killed suspects.
On July 28 in Chicago, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal was shot and killed by a police officer after a chaotic foot chase through a residential neighborhood in the city’s South Shore neighborhood.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer in a store’s parking lot during an altercation with two white officers responding to a call about a man threatening someone with a gun. Sterling was on the ground with several police officers on his back when he was shot and killed.
Officer Betty Shelby of the Tulsa Police Department was charged with first-degree manslaughter after fatally shooting an unarmed 40-year-old named Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16 after his car stopped in the middle of the road. Police video of the incident shows Crutcher retreating toward his car with both hands in the air before being shot.
Closer to home, Terence Sterling, a Fort Washington resident, was shot by Metropolitan Police on Sept. 11 after his motorcycle crashed into a police cruiser. Sterling was unarmed and the officer’s body camera did not record the incident. His death sparked protests throughout Washington, D.C.
O’Neal, Crutcher and both Sterling were all black males.
They were four of approximately 738 people who have been fatally shot by police across the country this year as of Oct. 11, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. In 2015, 991 people were shot and killed by police, which matches the pace of this year, according the Post.
Of the 991 shootings last year, two involved Prince George’s County police.
Prince George’s County police officer Brian Bell shot 30-year-old Asshams Pharoah Manley of Forestville last year during a struggle involving the officer’s gun. Manley was transported to the local trauma center where he later died.
Stawinski believes a nationally-recognized shooting could easily take place within the county’s borders.
“We’re no longer in a place where any event isn’t local; all events are now local,” Stawinski said. “I have a real problem with this notion of the public seeing itself as subject to police. Because they’re not. It’s a free people.”
Stawinski said his officers are trained not to shoot to kill and to de-escalate confrontations safely and as quickly as possible. He added that he understands not all officers will make perfect decisions in the heat of the moment, but they are also under extreme pressure.
“We train officers to have the ability and the skill set to neutralize a threat,” he said. “These are ultimately human interactions. Dissimilar circumstances may require very different outcomes. That’s where our focus is, on preparing the officer to assess the situation and make good choices.”
In response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a 32-year-old who was shot and killed by an officer during a traffic stop in suburban Minnesota, Maryland State Del. Darryl Barnes (D-25) led a Cease Fire Peace Walk in July where he expressed frustration in not only the officers and departments responsible for the shootings, but also those who used violence in response.
On July 8, 25-year-old Micah Johnson, an army veteran, shot and killed five officers who were protecting citizens during a protest in Dallas.
“These senseless killings, brutality and the rhetoric that is going on needs to stop,” Barnes said. “I’ve always said we’re one step away from something extreme happening here in our own backyard.”
Six fatal shootings involving officers with the county police department have occurred since 2013, according to statistics provided by the PGPD. That number does not include the recent death of Officer Jacai Colson, which was ruled a friendly-fire death.
In the same time period, PGPD recorded nine contact shootings (in which a suspect was hit but not killed) and six non-contact shootings (where a service weapon was fired but missed the target).
According to numbers provided by the Montgomery County Police Department, it had a total of three fatal shootings, one contact and three non-contacts in the same time frame. Baltimore City recorded 14 fatalities out of its 28 total departmental shootings. Anne Arundel County has had four total officer-involved shootings, none of which were fatal, while Howard County had seven total with three fatalities. The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to inquiries from The Sentinel.
Barnes said one way departments could prevent fatalities is through prolonging the recruit training process and more thoroughly evaluating the psychological makeup of recruits.
“When you want to become a doctor, you have to go through four years of intense training and education. But when you want to become a police officer, it’s six months,” Barnes said. “You’re not going to know the true mindset of an individual in the short period of time in which they apply for the job to become a police officer.”
Discussions over the past few years about officer-involved shootings have also circled around the question of racism.
Barnes and Oscar Barbarin, chair of the African-American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, both agreed that while race is not the only factor when evaluating police behavior, it may affect how some officers perceive the level of danger when interacting with a suspect.
They referred to this form of prejudice as “implicit bias,” a phenomenon that Barbarin said affects all members of society, not just police officers.
“When you are under stress and tension, some of your good intentions fall by the wayside,” Barbarin said. “No matter how hard people try, they still carry with them those subtle, implicit beliefs that make them interpret certain situations as dangerous when they may not be.”
At a recent race relations town hall, held at Largo High School on Sept. 19, Stawinski said he “doesn’t like the notion of dividing and setting one against the other – young, old, black, white, gay, straight.” However, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant believes race plays a large part in police interactions.
“Whenever I hear a white man say that race is not an issue or ‘that is not the problem’ or that ‘we are all one,’ it causes me to believe that somewhere in that psyche, that as a black man, I have been diminished,” Grant said at the town hall.
Of the 991 fatal police shootings last year, African-Americans accounted for 258 victims, or about 26 percent, according to the Post. Whites made up nearly 50 percent while Hispanics were about 17 percent.
A New York Times piece published in July followed Lt. Scott Finn, a Prince George’s County police officer who the department chose to pair with a reporter as he made his patrol rounds. During the ride-along, Finn, who had been accused of using excessive force and was flagged by the department for aggressive behavior, made some critical comments toward Black Lives Matter protesters.
However, Stawinski said the department has done a good job of identifying and solving internal issues and that he is more concerned with misrepresentation of an officer’s performance based on brief videos or lack of information.
“I don’t stay up at night worrying about what the men and women who represent this department are going to do,” Stawinski said. “What I worry about is anything that would lead to a diminution of trust in this department in this community.”
However, Charnell Ferguson, president of the NAACP Chapter at Bowie State University, said she already sees trust issues developing in her community.
“All you see in the community, from where I am in Landover, is the police coming over arresting somebody. There’s no community engagement. We only see you when you’re locking somebody up,” Ferguson said in September.
Hyattsville City Police Chief Douglas Holland also believes the level of trust between police and the public has diminished, but it is the responsibility of law enforcement, elected officials and the citizens to put forth the effort to restore that trust.
Hyattsville is one of several departments attempting to bridge the gap in trust between police and citizens through a series of community discussions in which the public is invited to bring its complaints directly to police in a forum.
“There are a lot of things we need to look at and there are things we have done internally to make sure things continue to work well,” Holland said. “We all need to improve our transparency with the public and we know we are accountable to the public.”
At the start of the year, the mayor and city council of Hyattsville formally adopted the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a model created to provide law enforcement agencies solutions to strengthen trust and focus on community-focused policing. Additionally, after piloting a body camera program for several years, the department now plans on permanently instituting the program and issuing cameras to its patrol officers.
Municipalities throughout the county have also adopted body cameras over the years. PGPD is one of those in the process of issuing body cameras to its officers and developing procedures for their use.
In the past year, Holland had his officers complete additional training in fair and impartial policing, which focuses on recognizing implicit biases and on verbal de-escalation.
“If there’s a positive that has come out of some of the things that have occurred across the country, it’s that it’s made a lot of departments stop and take a look at, see what can we be doing differently,” Holland said.
Despite efforts made by several departments across the county, state and country, some residents have a difficult time regaining trust in police.
As a result of these police shootings, many parents are having trouble explaining to their children that police officers will not shoot them.
“I try to explain to my child that not all police officers are bad,” said Linda Jackson of Greenbelt. “I told him that he should not be afraid of police officers. They are here to help us.”
“When all of these police shootings happen, my 5-year-old child asks me if a police officer is going to shoot him,” said Joann Dunn, a county resident. “I had to sit him down and tell him that police officers are here to help us when we need help, that they only shoot bad people who hurt people and you are not a bad person. You are a good little boy.”
Barnes called for members of the state legislature to reach out to communities and have broader conversations about police and race relations in an effort to craft policy that makes it easier for police to effectively do their job.
“We have a long way to go when you talk about policing in the United States,” Barnes said. “We have conversations on a high level but we are not getting down to the root cause.”
Emily Blackner, Candace Rojo Keyes, Gabriela Martinez and Shawn McFarland contributed to this article.