Maryland police chief latest to face reckoning amid protests
SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) - A Maryland police chief resigned this week within a few hours of a court file in which his department, one of the state's largest, was portrayed as an agency poisoned by a racist culture.
One complaint in the file said that a Prince George's County police sergeant had a personalized license plate with an acronym for a vulgarity directed against President Barack Obama. Officers reportedly distributed pictures of a training manikin adorned with an afro wig and a black face. A lieutenant ridiculed protesters of the Black Lives Matter in comments quoted in an article in the New York Times.
These allegations were described in a 94-page report filed on Thursday by plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit accusing the division of tolerating racism and avenging black and Hispanic officials who have dealt with the bigoted behavior of whites Colleagues complained.
At the end of the day, the district's top elected official announced that she had accepted the resignation of police chief Hank Stawinski.
Stawinski is the youngest law enforcement leader in the US to face settlement in the face of national protests that broke out after George Floyd's death last month. Chief of police in Atlanta; Portland, Oregon; and Richmond, Virginia; have also resigned since a white Minneapolis policeman kept a knee on Floyd's neck for a few minutes while the black man asked for air.
Prince Alsa's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said Thursday's court file, a report prepared by an expert for the plaintiffs, was not a factor in her decision to accept Stawinski's resignation. She said she had been thinking about the matter for months.
"I have no illusions, no illusions that there are no things in our police department that are broken," she said on Friday. "Whatever we find is broken, I assure you that I will fix it."
Prince George's County borders Washington, DC and has more than 900,000 residents. The county is mostly black, but the police department has a larger percentage of white officers than black officers, the lawsuit says.
Stawinski, who was appointed to the position in 2016, did not attend the press conference at which Alsobrooks introduced a 26-year-old veteran from the department, Hector Velez, as the provisional chief of police. A message to Stawinski that was emailed to a department spokeswoman was not immediately returned.
"We are at a crossroads where we have the opportunity to choose a path that connects us," said Velez.
Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, sued the county and Stawinski in December 2018 on behalf of several current and former officials. Many of the allegations in Thursday's court file have been outlined in the lawsuit or have been public for longer.
In August 2018, for example, Stawinski apologized for a Facebook Live video that has since been deleted, in which an official who speaks to children speaks of a "black evil". The officer who gave a K-9 demonstration said police dogs could smell a person's smell "when a black villain runs and drops an object."
Joe Perez, a retired official who is one of the plaintiffs for the lawsuit, believes the protests against Floyd's death accelerated Stawinski's departure.
"I think the timing was right because people were fed up with racism, discrimination and the fight against minorities," said Perez, who said he was skipped from promotions because he spoke out against discrimination.
The local branch of the NAACP had planned to vote no-confidence against Stawinski's leadership on Thursday evening. Branch President Bob Ross said he personally likes Stawinski, but believed the department needed new leadership.
"I think it kind of snowed him up and he didn't know how to work his way out," said Ross on Friday.
Michael Graham, an expert on police proceedings hired by the plaintiffs' lawyers, said in his report that the police department generally did not investigate complaints about racial discrimination and harassment. The lawsuit said, for example, that Stawinski knew of the April 2016 complaint that a sergeant had received custom-made license plates for a personal vehicle with the acronym for a vulgarity directed against Obama. But the complaint was not investigated and the sergeant was not only not disciplined, he was promoted to lieutenant, the lawsuit said.
Alsobrooks said the county would conduct a national search for a new chief. She would not comment on the allegations in Thursday's court file. In a court motion in February, prosecutors said the lawsuit was full of "numerous, vaguely suspected acts that are not linked to individual plaintiffs' work experience."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damage, including punitive damages, as well as a court order that the county abolish racial discrimination within its police department.
In October 2017, Stawinski said the Justice Department was investigating allegations that the Department's employment practices discriminated against Hispanics and blacks. At the time, Stawinski said he would cooperate with the federal investigation and end any "structure or practice" that would have an adverse effect on officials.
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