PALMER PARK – Prince George’s County Police are responding to allegations of racial discrimination within the department raised in a complaint filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) by minority officers. On Feb. 9, Chief Hank Stawinski held a press conference where he attempted to provide context and information about some of the specific allegations […]
PALMER PARK – Prince George’s County Police are responding to allegations of racial discrimination within the department raised in a complaint filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) by minority officers.
On Feb. 9, Chief Hank Stawinski held a press conference where he attempted to provide context and information about some of the specific allegations contained in media reports about the DOJ complaint, filed Oct. 31 by the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the United Black Police Officers Association.
“Throughout very difficult circumstances in the last year as the chief of police, I’ve been asked difficult questions,” Stawinski said. “What this community and what this institution- the men and women of this police department must know, is that when I have facts and I have the opportunity to investigate and draw conclusions, I will bring those facts to you.”
The complaint alleges “denial of promotions and denial of transfers of Black and Hispanic officers” and asks the DOJ’s Civil Rights division to also investigate “handling of allegations of misconduct as it relates to minority complainants as well as the disparities in discipline of minority officers as compared to that of white officers.” The number of officers signed onto the complaint continues to grow, with more than 90 adding their names. The DOJ sent staffers to meet with some of the officers involved but has not commented on whether it will conduct a full investigation.
Stawinksi said his department has still not seen a copy of the complaint. His comments focused on three specific photographs that had been included in local media reports. The first is the image of a training dummy, on which someone hand-wrote “black face” and “Afro wig” to draw attention to an image taped to the dummy’s head and a wig on the floor at the dummy’s feet. Stawinski said the photograph was brought to his attention Jan. 4, 2017, but investigation shows the photo was taken around 2015.
Stawinski said the training materials in that photo are no longer used by the department, but they were part of a variety of training scenarios involving victims and suspects of all races and genders.
“The one item described as an Afro wig, which is a black, curly-haired wig, was brought to training by an African-American member of our training staff because we needed that component to carry out training about de-escalation, some of that to do with domestic violence,” he explained. “Some of this material which is being proffered to you is part of a training program that was featured as a best practice in November of 2015.”
Another image shows a license plate that reads “GFYOBMA” which was affixed to a police officer’s personal vehicle last spring. Some officers were offended by the personalized plate.
“It was suggested to me that that meant ‘Good for you, Obama’ and I rejected that. My opinion is that GFY means one thing and one thing only,” Stawinski said. “I found that repulsive. It does not represent the ideals, the policies and practices of Prince George’s County Police Department.”
The plate was brought to his attention in April 2016, Stawinski said. But he said the officer, as a private citizen, has First Amendment rights to express his opinion and was not disciplined over the incident, although he was barred from parking the vehicle on police property.
“At the end of the day, that license plate was issued by the state of Maryland. It’s on a person’s personal vehicle. The only recourse I had was to say I will not have it parked on county property. But that notwithstanding, I made it clear this won’t be accepted because it does not represent the ideals of this institution,” Stawinski said.
A Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman said the plate was issued in error and has not been returned. The agency will be sending staff to recover it.
Stawinski also discussed a photograph taken Feb. 7, 2017, of a locker for the agency’s ceremonial guard. Strips of duct tape are affixed to it, on which “Color Guard” is written. The word “color” is crossed out and “African-American” written next to it. Stawinski said investigation is still ongoing as to the circumstances behind that photograph.
“This is actively under investigation,” he said. “When I have facts, I’ll bring them to the community to address what that was supposed to mean.”
John Teletchea, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, the officers’ union, said he and the union were supporting the chief’s efforts in investigating all of these incidents.
“I applaud the chief for immediately opening investigations and we will stand by making sure that the investigations are fair, impartial, thorough and complete,” he said. “My membership having a strong, cohesive working relationship and an atmosphere free from anything that may detract from hard work and dedication to the men and women of this community is of utmost importance and we will continue to monitor this investigation to ensure that our members cooperate with this investigation and to ensure that things of this nature are not allowed in the workplace.”
Stawinski said the department has already taken steps to get to the bottom of other allegations of discrimination as well. In Sept. 2016, as part of an agreement with the union, the department began releasing fact and discipline information for Internal Affairs cases, so officers can see how complaints were investigated and how officers were disciplined. The department also convened a panel to look at best practices, promotion and discipline within the organization. The first meeting was held Feb. 9, Stawinski said.
He hopes the panel will allow officers who have concerns about discrimination to feel comfortable coming forward with them.
“I know people fear bringing these things forward because they think it will negatively impact their career. I can assure you all day long that that’s not the case, but they still have fears. So that’s why we are looking for ways to proactively gather that information,” Stawinski said.