On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Officers filed suit against Prince George’s County last week, alleging that the police department discriminates against employees of color, routinely denying them promotions and disciplining them more harshly than white officers.
The suit claims that the department has permitted racist conduct against black and Hispanic employees and community members, and failed to discipline white officers who have used racist slurs.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Joseph Perez President, Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association
- Tracee Wilkins Prince George's County Bureau Chief, NBC4
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. Welcome, later in the broadcast what do local non-profits actually need at this time year? We'll talk about making the most of the season of giving. But first in Prince George's County a group of police officers has filed a lawsuit against their department alleging discrimination against employees of color and retaliation against those who report racist conduct. Joining in me in studio to discuss this is Joseph Perez. He's an officer in the Prince George's County Police Department and president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association. Joe Perez, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOSEPH PEREZThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Tracee Wilkins. She is Prince George's Country Bureau Chief at NBC4. Tracee, welcome, Wilkins, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. TRACEE WILKINSWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDITracee, I'd like to start with a tweet you sent out this morning. Quoting here, "Per sources, a number of Prince George's County police officers are suspended pending the outcome of an investigation after an accidental police shooting at a party over the weekend. I'm told officers were injured. I'm awaiting more details from police." What else can you tell us about that?
WILKINSWell, I'm still awaiting more details from police at this point. I've made a number of calls and we have been texting and I am hoping that the Public Information Officer will have some more information for us shortly. My understanding is that this -- over the weekend there was a squad party, which some of the squads do in the various units. And this was held at an officer's home in Brandywine.
WILKINSAnd my understanding is that at some point during the evening an officer accidentally discharged his weapon. And at least one other officer was injured. Possibly the officer may have injured himself, who discharged the weapon and then injured a second officer. So the Prince George's County Police Department is investigating this. A number of folks in that squad, if not the entire squad suspended, everybody who was there at least, as they try to figure out how did this happen, and then with it happening at a party that's never good. So lots of questions about what was going on.
NNAMDIWell, I'll be watching you closely this evening to see when details do come out about this. On to the issue at hand, what are the officers' primary complaints in this lawsuit and why was it brought forward?
WILKINSWell -- and Joe can speak to this as well. We have been following this for some time here. And the allegations here are of retaliation and discrimination within the department. And as you know the Prince George's County Police Department has a storied history with accusations of discrimination both inside now, but also outside of the department. It was under U.S. Department of Justice oversight for some time. Its K-9 Unit after that -- after that oversight was lifted, still remained under oversight for a while after that because...
NNAMDIFederal consent decree from 2004 to 2009.
WILKINSYeah, a pretty long time and what the Chief of Police will tell you is that that helped to really change the department and that its relationship with the community is much better now after that oversight. It helped it to be a stronger department with better community relations. What the officers will tell you is that work that was done externally needed to be done internally as well. And that officers have been dealing with racial discrimination and unfair practices -- unfair discipline practices within that department for some time. And all of that has culminated into what is now a federal lawsuit with a number of allegations mapped out from officers within the department. Some who are still employed and some who are former officers who feel that they lost their jobs unjustly.
NNAMDIJoe Perez, you are among the plaintiffs. What are the issues and why did you and the other officers decide to file a lawsuit?
PEREZWell, we filed the lawsuit, because we had no other choice. It was our last resort. I mean, we've taken every step to try to handle this situation internally. We tried meeting with the Chief and all of our meetings have resulted in officers being targeted immediately after our meetings when we described situations. So we kind of didn't have any choice. We even went as far as getting the NAACP and the Department of Justice to sit down and mediate with us. And that would have been confidential. It would have been kept in house, but the administration refused to do that.
PEREZAnd what most people don't realize and you can see it in the lawsuit is that these complaints really started with the community. These are comments -- racial comments against people in the community. There's text messages referring to public hangings. There's, you know, text messages with the "N" word and whenever an officer of color sees something like this and reports it, he's targeted. And let me know too for the record that there are some non-minority officers that witness this stuff and if they come forward they're targeted as well.
NNAMDIAre you saying that after you met with the Chief to discuss these issues that there was retaliation against some the officers, who participated in that meeting?
PEREZYes. There's one particular officer that's in the lawsuit that basically, we met with the Chief, because over a period of time he witnessed some racial incidents against people in the community. And it was various ones, I.E. they went to a call and it was in Bladensburg and the short story of the call is that he didn't lock this person up. And his supervisor told him that if the person is African American and lives in Bladensburg, he's a criminal. All right. And it's comments like that. And then as soon as you say something about it, you're not a team player.
PEREZAnd then eventually they write you up for, you know, something, lack of productivity, something. And then in addition to that he receives a text message with the "N" word about a particular citizen. And we meet with the Chief about it. And I'll tell you this timeline wise there was a transfer list before we met with the Chief with -- I don’t know, 50 people on it more or less. And after we showed this text message and explained everything to the Chief, this guy was transferred. You know, they revised the transfer list and transferred him a couple days later.
NNAMDITracee have you heard from officers especially and maybe off the record conversations prior to this about these kinds of problems?
WILKINSWell, absolutely. We've been hearing about this since we started our Prince George's County Bureau. In the county, I've had a number of officers who have talked to me about issues. And I have to tell you, I remember back in 2013 when we first started looking into these accusations of -- and this was under another Chief. This was under Chief Magaw. The first time that we did one of these stories. And in preparing for that story talking to officers about conditions and what was happening and unfair promotions and being overlooked and officers doing inappropriate things in the community.
WILKINSThere was one officer who I spoke with who made a reference to Christopher Donner or Dorner. He was that LAPD officer, who had the manifesto and shot a number of people killing some in California. There was a manhunt for him at some point and he had been fired and he was saying that he was unfairly fired and he had a whole list of reasons for why he wanted to go after his colleagues and their family members. And I had an officer say to me, I understand how he felt, because of our working conditions.
WILKINSAnd I thought to myself, This is a powder keg. You know, this is unbelievable to hear an officer say that they are so unhappy with their working conditions that they sympathize with this officer, who was doing without question the wrong thing on the West Coast and terrorizing a large portion of California, which is the reason that we have followed these stories so closely and reported on what we have heard from them and then also talking with the Chief about what he's doing with it.
WILKINSAnd so now we're onto a second administration where they are dealing with the same issues. What we are hearing from officers is that with the prior administration -- that with the Magaw administration and some chiefs before him they were able to sit down and have conversations about some of their problems. And see that those problems had at least some resolution. Whether they agreed or not there was a conversation.
WILKINSWhat we are hearing now is that a lot of those conversations have stopped happening. The president of the NAACP for the Prince George's County chapter, Bob Ross, referred to that saying that there was a time that he could go in and talk to the Chief about complaints he was receiving from officers and felt that there was a discourse where something was taken care of, that parties left feeling like they had been heard and that the problem was going to be addressed. And he was talking about how under Chief Stawinski he doesn't feel like those conversations are continuing. And he's concerned about that.
NNAMDIThe Prince George's County Police Department declined to join us for this program saying that unfortunately they could not comment due to the pending litigation. Joe, in 2017, dozens of Prince George's County police officers signed on to a Department of Justice complaint alleging rampant discrimination inside the police department. What became -- what came of that complaint?
PEREZWell, it's currently being investigated by the Department of Justice and our attorneys, the ACLU, the Washington Lawyers Committee, and (word?) are working closely with DOJ investigators to interview officers so they can tell their stories.
NNAMDIOn now to the telephones. Here is Maryanne, who is in Maryland, someplace. Maryanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYANNEYes. Hi. Thank you for this topic at hand. And, again, my name is Maryanne Gray Hopkins and I am the mother -- I'm a survivor of a victim of police brutality in Prince George's County. My son Gary Hopkins was murdered by the police in Prince George's County in 1999. And I wanted to make a comment that this is not a new issue. This has been an issue for decades if not centuries. And Prince George's County has been at the top of that list.
MARYANNEWhen I experienced the loss of my son, I received anonymous phone calls from officers that were afraid to come forward, because of the Blue Wall of silence, because of them being cited as rats, you know, and not being protected by their fellow officers. So I want to thank these officers for finally coming forward and allowing their voices to be heard, because, again, as I mentioned this has been a long standing issue in Prince George's County.
MARYANNEI honestly believe, had the information come out from other officers at the time of my son's murder that the outcome would have been a lot different. So, again, I want to thank them. I stand behind them. And the mothers from the Coalition of Concerned Mothers, we stand behind you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Maryanne. Prince George's Police Chief, Hank Stawinski, has a bit of a reputation in public as being fairly transparent and open, especially when there was a wrongful shooting that occurred a little while ago. By -- within 24 hours he came out and admitted that there was a wrongful shooting. And I guess that gave people the impression that this is the kind of chief, who listens both to his officers and to the residents of the county.
NNAMDIBut, Joe, you have called for the ouster of Hank Stawinski's, who is named in the lawsuit among other public safety leaders in the county. What role do you believe the Police Chief has played in all of this?
PEREZWell, he has first-hand knowledge to many of the complaints. While some of the complaints date back before him, most of the complaints that we initially brought to his attention were under his watch. And he, you know, he was the one that dealt with these. And immediately after dealing with the issues and taking adverse actions against the particular officers, we submitted that to DOJ. That's what got them here, you know. And what's happened is this administration while we have a history in Prince George's County, all right, of racial biases in the past. This particular administration has enabled and emboldened officers to just come out in the open and do this stuff, because they're not being held accountable.
NNAMDITracee Wilkins, the police department disputes these claims. How have they responded to the lawsuit?
WILKINSWell, they have told us the same thing that you have heard and that is that they can't comment, because of this pending lawsuit. And -- but in the past in the stories that we have done before on some of the issues that have appeared in this lawsuit they have had explanations for how these things have happened. They had described them as being misunderstandings, and then they explain how the misunderstandings happened. And there are a number of them.
WILKINSI mean, we had that incident with the officer who had the "Go F- yourself Obama" license plates on his personal vehicle that were parked in front of the department for citizens and anyone, who was coming in to see in Prince George's County, a county where President Obama was largely popular. And so the conversation for what happened with those license plates and why officer complaints about them weren't listened to -- it was -- there were explanations for how that was allowed to happen.
NNAMDIJoe, I imagine that this lawsuit might put officers in at least some officers in a fairly uncomfortable position at work. Are officers worried about retaliation from their colleagues?
PEREZYes, they are. And it puts them in a very uncomfortable position. I mean, just a few days ago one of our officers was attending a police function. There were a lot of high level commanders and other police officers. And this one executive commander was shaking people's hands, giving other police officers hugs. And this officer reached out his hand and they just walked passed him, you know, so these are the people that are setting the tone, you know.
NNAMDITracee, do these officers alleging discrimination have the support of the incoming new County Executive Angela Alsobrooks?
WILKINSWell, we spoke County Executive Alsobrooks on Friday, when the -- no, the actual day that the lawsuit came out. That Thursday we had a conversation with her. And she said before taking office -- she said -- during her swearing in that she supports this chief. He stayed on where she turned over a lot of departments in Prince George's County after taking office. She kept Chief Stawinski and also his boss, former Chief Magaw, in place, because she's very happy with the public safety numbers and what's happening with the number of homicides in Prince George's County, which is at a historic low right now. She's happy with violent crime numbers, which are also down.
WILKINSShe feels that this is a successful police department statistically. And for those reason, Chief Stawinski kept his job and, again, when a number of people in the county did not. And so she went on to say that she's going to take a look at this lawsuit. I checked back in with the office today and that still remains the same. That they're going to go over it. They're going to take a look at it. And she's going to have conversations with the Chief. I don't know if those conversations have happened yet or not, but I would imagine that she has a lot of questions about what's being alleged in the lawsuit.
WILKINSBut in terms of commenting her comment was any practice of discrimination is going to be taken seriously under her administration regardless of what department it is. And if she has to make hard decisions, she'll make those decisions. She said she's not afraid to make those decisions if necessary. But she wants to have all the information before she does so.
NNAMDIJoe Perez, she used to be State Attorney for Prince George's County, which means she's had quite a bit of contact with the police department in general and the police chief in particular. What are you hoping comes out of her looking into this?
PEREZWell, let me first say that as organizations of both the Hispanic and Black officers, we fully support her and we're like so happy to see that we finally have a woman as county executive and even better a minority woman, you know. And we support everything she's done as a State's Attorney. And, you know, we are looking for her to make some tough choices here, you know, because it's clearly the administration and, you know, a few co-conspirators of this racial behavior.
NNAMDITracee Wilkins, what's next here?
WILKINSWell, we know that the ACLU has put out a petition. They're asking for signatures in support of hoping to pressure the county executive into making some decisions quickly about what's going on inside of the department. So that is circulating online. We're still waiting to hear what her reaction will be after going over this lawsuit and what steps will be taken and then also what the chief of police has to say about this if anything.
WILKINSAnd as you mentioned, I mean, he is not afraid of having press conferences responding to accusations. But we have not heard from the department yet. And I think it's important to note you have organizations like the ACLU, the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, and NAACP and these organizations we're used to hearing fighting for folks in the general public and upholding civil liberties. And to hear that they're taking up a police department's complaint is unusual.
NNAMDITo say the least.
WILKINSSo all of these organizations are also pushing this and trying to keep it in the public's attention. So we'll see what happens.
NNAMDIJoe, what are your plans going forward?
PEREZWell, we're hoping to see some changes, you know, especially at the top levels. We're hoping for some concrete policy changes where we can have an independent monitor ensure that these policies are adhered to fairly and impartially. We're hoping to get some jobs back for people, who were wrongfully terminated.
NNAMDIJoseph Perez is an officer in the Prince George's County Police Department, he's also president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association. Joe Perez, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITracee Wilkins is Prince George's County Bureau Chief with NBC4. Tracee Wilkins, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDILooking forward to hearing your report on the Tweet you sent out this morning. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, what do local non-profits actually need this time of year? We'll talk about making the most of the season of giving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.