Prince George’s County leaders discuss protests, police accountability at town hall
Prince George's County leaders discuss policing in the county and in the country in a virtual town hall. (Lyna Bentahar/For The Diamondback)
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks held a virtual town hall on Wednesday to discuss policing in the county and country. The town hall took place less than 24 hours after the Prince George’s County Police Department announced it was suspending three officers and launching an internal investigation over use of force.
Alsobrooks condemned the incident as “disgusting.” There is no reasonable explanation, Alsobrooks said, and the officers involved should be fired.
She added that departments need to do a better job in screening who is accepted into their police academies and onto their forces. She also urged reform of Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
“It should not be the case, no matter what your job is, that if you commit an act like that when in plain sight — or out of plain sight — that we should have to go through a thousand different loops to correct it,” she said.
In a video shared late Tuesday night by the county’s police department, one officer can be seen throwing down and kicking an individual at a Langley Park gas station. The video’s release comes amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism, which have sprung up across the country following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man.
Since the video surfaced, the county has forwarded the case to State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s office, Alsobrooks said. The police powers of the two officers involved in the incident, as well as the police powers of their supervisor, have been suspended without pay, Alsobrooks said.
However, Braveboy — another panelist at the town hall — stressed that most allegations made against officers never go past review from the police department’s internal affairs. This leaves her office in the dark about officers’ misconduct and leaves their accusers in the dark as to what becomes of their complaints.
Later, county police chief Hank Stawinski emphasized that he has prosecuted four police officers for assault since coming into his role in 2016 — agreeing that the structures surrounding police accountability need to be “torn down and rebuilt.”
However, he said, he is not late to this conversation. In 2018, he said, he brought in a University of Maryland sociologist to take the department through implicit bias training.
“I am not going to defend myself, because I know my record at this point doesn’t matter,” he said. “All that matters is what we do going forward.”
Panelists at the town hall — which included a pastor, lawyer, judge and, for a while, Congressman Steny Hoyer — also acknowledged previous instances of police killings and brutality in the county. While the outrage is fresh in response to the killing of Floyd, the grief is nothing new for the black community, both in Prince George’s County and across the nation.
In March, county Cpl. Michael Owen was indicted on a second-degree murder charge in the fatal shooting of 43-year-old William Green. Green was handcuffed in the front passenger seat of a patrol car. In 2019, Cpl. Stephen Downey was convicted of assaulting a man handcuffed in his patrol car.
Several panelists drew comparisons between the coronavirus pandemic and the epidemic of racism that continues to grip the nation. And the violence that continues to rain down upon the black community is more than physical, Alsobrooks said, but also economic and educational.
“You said that there is some unrest right now across the country, but the truth of the matter is we’ve had unrest every day I can remember,” Alsobrooks said. “I can’t remember a time when there’s ever been any rest for black people in this country.”
It’s something that Alsobrooks said her friends and colleagues have grappled with how to explain to their children as of late. Her chief of staff’s 10-year-old son, she said, has been unable to sleep, worried he might also be killed by a police officer.
What’s happening right now in the country is felt by everybody, Alsobrooks said, describing how her own teenage daughter has been asking her for help with her poster board because “she says she’s got some protesting to do.”
“This is a time of pain that is felt by all,” Alsobrooks said. “I’m convinced it will never be the same in this country.”
Dr. Billina Shaw, medical director of mental health services at the county health department, also offered some advice for parents to help their children process — as the town hall’s moderator put it — “all of this negative stimulation that’s coming their way.”
One thing to do, Shaw said, is to limit this stimulation by logging out of social media. And, she encouraged parents to remind their children that overcoming racial injustice is not a new struggle, but rather a historical battle.
“It does seem like our world is spiralling out of control,” she said. “I think the key pieces to remember that — where we have come from to where we are now — there has been a lot of progress.”