LANGLEY PARK – Current and former police officers from the Prince George’s Police Department (PGPD) are suing the agency for discriminatory practices – including the use of racial slurs by white officers and retaliation methods for reporting actions.
In a lawsuit that was filed on Dec. 12, two labor organizations, Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and United Black Police Officers Association, as well as the 11 officers are alleging that white officers engaged in racist misconduct, calling their minority colleagues n*****s, spics, baboons, apes and African Queens.
Similar names were used to describe county residents as well, according to the lawsuit. Other actions include circulating pictures of a Hispanic commander dressed up as a voodoo doll filled with comments, putting blackface and an Afro wig on a training dummy, text messages with racist language and sending a package filled with racist emails to an African American officer.
The lawsuit alleges that Police Chief Hank Stawinski and Deputy Chief Mark Magaw knew about the actions of white police officers. However, instead of addressing it, minority officers were transferred, terminated or assigned to the least desirable shifts to force them to quit. Some complaints were ignored or brushed off with excuses as well.
“(Stawinski) is the chief of police, so the buck stops with him, and the officers have tried repetitively to address these problems and call these issues to his attention,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon said. “Instead of trying to work with them to address the problems, he has lashed out with disciplinary action against them and he is at the heart of these allegations of retaliation.”
President of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Officers Association and Capt. Joe Perez said he saw similar behavior when he worked with internal affairs for PGPD.
He recalled seeing more officers of color being treated differently to white officers, from promotion opportunities to how discipline was being given. When trying to address concerns of possible racism, Perez said he felt the current PGPD leadership was ignoring their issues.
“We tried meeting with the administrations and presented some issues and overtime, what ended up happening was the officer who presented that issue would be targeted,” Perez said.
Jeon said that eight of the 11 officers in the lawsuit are currently in the department while the other three were “wrongfully terminated” for confronting department officials about the discriminatory actions.
The fired officers would like the opportunity to work in the county, but changes would need to be made to ensure all police employees are treated equally. In the meantime, Perez and the other seven officers in the lawsuit will continue working for the department throughout the legal process.
“The majority of them want to come back to the department as they live in the county and we’re proud to be a part of the Prince George’s County Police force,” Perez said. “This is what they aspire to be. They wouldn’t want to do anything else, but this administration has taken that away from these folks.”
There have been reports in the past on discrimination within the department, leading to the U.S. Department of Justice to announce that its Civil Rights Division would be investigating PGPD for discrimination against Latino and black officers. In a press conference on Oct. 3, 2017, Stawinski said that PGPD would cooperate with their investigation.
The lawsuit comes after the county celebrated the Jan. 8 announcement of a 50 percent drop in crime since 2010. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks was in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) annual meeting when the lawsuit was announced.
Alsobrooks was the state’s attorney for eight years before her election in November. She said that she had not read the lawsuit nor talked with any officers since being elected.
“I haven’t heard what the allegations are but there is a process involved and as that process wraps itself up, if we learn that there are discriminatory practices, we will address them and again, that is not just true for the police department that is any agency in the government,” said Alsobrooks.
Following Alsobrooks’ comments, PGPD declined to comment further pending litigation.
On Aug. 24 in a Facebook Live video broadcast, as police showed a group of young children how K-9 dogs are trained to help police, a white officer referred to a possible suspect as a “a black bad guy.”
The video was posted but taken down and Stawinski issued a video apology on Aug. 27, stating the officer used an “unfortunate remark” but that he misspoke.
“On behalf of that officer and this institution, I apologize to this community for that unfortunate remark,” Stawinski said. “But I want you to know that that remark does not represent who that officer is, and it does not represent what this institution stands for.”
However, the remarked incident is referenced in the lawsuit and is an example of Stawinski and other members of management failing to address such issues adequately. It is unknown if the officer was disciplined for his actions.
“Despite having been put on notice of discriminatory practices, Chief Stawinski has nurtured an environment where racist conduct that is unacceptable in today’s society is allowed to persist and flourish,” The ACLU of Maryland said in a statement. “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.”