GLENN DALE – After receiving the first question in the Civility Conversations panel on Nov. 4, Sonya Zollicoffer hesitated on the microphone before speaking.
The lieutenant of the Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) was going through the process of a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other fellow police officers about their treatment in the police force.
However, when asked about what she thought were some positives and negative actions committed by the police in the community, Zollicoffer was honest with her answer.
“It is now a situation where our community does not trust us,” Zollicoffer said. “Unless we become more transparent with our community and our black, brown kids … I do have a lot to say to help my community understand how the police department operates that we do have honest police officers, and I am one of them.”
Zollicoffer was one of 13 panelists of local politicians, activists, policymakers and police officers as a part of a local town hall on police and community relations hosted by Reid Temple A.M.E. Church.
The event provided residents a transparent look into the police’s actions, allowing people to openly express their concerns with law enforcement and how the community can address those problems.
Billed as part of a series of “civility conversations,” the town hall addressed several topics, including community relations built by police departments, body cameras, accountability and police law in the panel setting.
More than 300 people attended the town hall and were allowed to ask the panelists questions during a question-and-answer session.
“Tonight will be a night to have a decent conversation about the police,” Rev. Mark E. Whitlock Jr. said.”
The town hall was not attended to only focus on PGPD as it was intended to examine all police as a whole. Throughout the night, transparency was the key theme as one-by-one; each panelist expressed concerns about the amount of information being released to the public.
One example given was by the county’s State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, who kicked off the event showing the audience the checklist that her office uses to prosecute officers. According to Braveboy, only 80 officers in PGPD are fully equipped with body cameras, a statistic that admittedly is not available to the public, who believe all county officers are equipped.
“I think it sets up an unreasonable expectation for the public and certainly my office because we will get the commentary of ‘where is the evidence?,’” Braveboy said. “It just makes sense for modern policing in America to have (body cameras), and we have to meet the expectations of the public.”
President of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Officers’ Association Joe Perez brought his experience with the internal affairs department of the PGPD to explain his concerns on how delayed police forces release the information on crimes or suspectsafter it is out on social media.
“You cannot say in a press conference ‘I am addressing my community’ when the information is out there,” Perez said.
The town hall comes one week after Community Justice, a local criminal justice organization, began an online petition that demanded the removal of PGPD Chief Hank Stawinski.
Organizers of the event say that the police department was sent an invitation to participate in the event, along with other local police leaderships and politicians.
Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology and executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that based on his studies of police around the country, many stations are ill-equipped to upgrade their technology.
Despite the negative feedback about the transparency, members of the panel did address the positives that some police forces are doing to be a part of the community. Prince George’s County Councilmember Deni Taveras (District 2) said the coffee hours with locals are one-way officers and have done to stay engaged in the community. However, she admitted that members of her community are “afraid of the police.”
When asked about legislations supporting residents against the police, Taveras said that there were three bills up for discussion, but only one has garnered support with the council.
That bill, the councilmember said, would make sure that PGPD and other local police would not interact with ICE officials outside of gang activity or criminal investigations.
Working together with County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and her administration will be key in improving county police, Taveras said.
“We worked really well with the county executive’s office,” Taveras said. “She has been very supportive of everything we have been doing as a whole. Right now, it is making sure that bad apples are pointed out and address those effectively. At the same time, we want to make sure we are communicating openly to the police to address the concerns of the community is feeling.”
At the state level, Del. Erek L. Barron (D-24) said he would be introducing again an amendment to the Public Information Act that would allow access to police misconduct reports. He asked the audience in attendance to follow up with this and other bills that concern police actions to show delegates what topics are affecting people who live in the state.
“We need this kind of turnout in Annapolis,” Barron said.
Dee Stewart, 59, said that the panel was a good start to the conversation but more needs to spoke about, including how police can best interact with those with mental disabilities. Stewart said she is still concerned about the safety of her autistic son and how he will be addressed when he comes into contact with police. She also said better transparency in how they are reprimanded is needed.
“Good cops that do not report bad cops are bad cops so how do we win,” Stewart said. “The police need our help and we need the police.”
Ray confirmed that another police forum is being planned for January and will involve participation with students from Eleanor Roosevelt High School.