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LANGLEY PARK – As a former member of the Internal Affairs unit for Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD), seeing charges by county residents of discrimination and officer misconduct was a routine part of the job, Capt. Joe Perez said.
However, the lengths that investigators went to discredit citizens making complaints about white officers were strange and out-of-place. They quickly look at the resident’s criminal history and their recent spell in jail to use against the complaint, Perez said.
“What does that have to do with the officer disrespecting you or calling you a name or using force on you or what does that have to do with what the officer has been alleged to have done,” Perez said. “That is the method of operation that they use…Instead of focusing that this particular officer who may have four or five similar incidents with different citizens, we have to focus on the citizen, and that is a double-standard.”
Their behavior was changed if a minority officer was charged with misconduct. Investigators would openly call their coworkers “thugs” and conduct biased investigations that convicted and dismissed the officer, he said.
“The presumption was if it was a white officer, he was innocent, no matter how much proof or if there was video,” Perez said. “A minority officer gets a complaint; he was just another bad black guy.”
Since a lawsuit was filed on Dec. 12 by 11 current and former PGPD police officers and two labor organizations, Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and United Black Police Officers Association, details have emerged that that agency is a hostile work for minorities; Racist behavior by white officers are on full display, and little discipline is being conducted by the top brass in the department, including current Police Chief Hank Stawinski.
The lawsuit alleges several behaviors committed by white officers, including calling heavily African-American dominated neighborhoods “s***holes” or “ghettoes” while verbally assaulting their minority coworkers.
Racists texts were exchanged between officers saying, “we should bring back public hangings” and “we should get rid of the black animals” with no discipline issued by Stawinski or any other department leadership, according to the lawsuit.
Those messages are a part of the evidence for the trial, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon said.
One 2013 incident alleges a white officer called his African-American commanding officer as a “baboon” and named a senior African-American employee an “African Queen.” When facing possible termination, recommended by the Internal Affairs, then-Police Chief Mark McGaw and then-Deputy Stawinski decided to demote the officer.
The officer is still with the police force, despite serving a 10-hour suspension for a separate incident, and has been promoted to lieutenant, according to the lawsuit. Attorneys working the case say that the department’s leadership has made it toxic to report any kind of misbehavior to internal affairs due to their defensive response towards certain, mostly white, officers.
“We ask officers to serve their communities justly and without bias. They are entitled to the same in the workplace,” Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil rights and Urban Affairs. “Despite the culture of retaliation within the Prince George’s Police Department, the officers bringing this suit are courageous in stepping forward to take a stand against the racism that infects the department.”
Sonya Lancaster can recall being paired together with a field training officer when she started with the department.
According to the lieutenant, the officer sexually and verbally assaulted her. Instead of speaking up on the incidents during training, she continued working at the department, unsure of the ramifications.
“I felt violated, disrespected, scared, afraid to tell anyone because he made it clear that no one would believe you,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster would become a centerpiece of the department’s breast cancer awareness campaigns due to her past with the illness. She was transferred to the internal affairs division, where minority officers were quickly disciplined for their negative behavior while their white counterparts were not, becoming repeat offenders until things escalated into a “newsworthy incident,” Lancaster said.
After dealing with several sleepiness nights reliving the memories of her assault, Lancaster told officers of the incident, calling it her “me-too” moment.
Instead of disciplining the alleged officer, Lancaster alleges that he was promoted while she was demoted back to a patrol officer in retaliation of speaking out. The lack of a response by PGPD forced Lancaster to join the lawsuit as a representative for African American women in the force going through the same ordeal.
“This has caused so much stress in my life and depression; it is like you are victimizing me again,” Lancaster said. “I have been told by a white officer ‘nobody gives a fuck what you think; you have to adjust, not us.’ So, because of that, I am going to speak my truth.”
Eight officers named in the lawsuit currently still work with PGPD and intend to continue as the case goes to court, Jeon said. Perez hopes he and other working officers are allowed to serve the community without repercussions and if the case goes in their favor, three officers “wrongfully terminated” for confronting department officials would be allowed to return.
“All of us are going to continue doing our jobs, the ones that are still employed, and I am hopeful that some of the guys that were wrongfully terminated can get their jobs back,” Perez said. “That is more important. Most of them want to come back to the department; the majority of the people in our complaint want to come back to the department as they live in the county and are proud to be Prince George’s County Police officers.”
The agency declined to comment further pending litigation. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks has not committed further on the lawsuit since saying on Dec. 12 that if discriminatory practices were made, her administration would “address them… not just true for the police department that is any agency in the government.”