Maryland police chief latest to face reckoning amid protests

MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
·4 min read
FILE - In htis March 14, 2016 file photo, Prince George's County police chief Hank Stawinski accompanied by the parents of police officer Jacai Colson, James and Sheila Colson speaks during a news conference at Prince George's County Police headquarters in Hyattsville, Md. Stawinski resigned Thursday, June 18, 2020 amid reports alleging racial bias and discrimination toward officers of color. Stawinski's resignation comes as the local chapter of the NAACP had planned to hold a vote of no-confidence Thursday evening against Stawinski’s leadership. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - In htis March 14, 2016 file photo, Prince George's County police chief Hank Stawinski accompanied by the parents of police officer Jacai Colson, James and Sheila Colson speaks during a news conference at Prince George's County Police headquarters in Hyattsville, Md. Stawinski resigned Thursday, June 18, 2020 amid reports alleging racial bias and discrimination toward officers of color. Stawinski's resignation comes as the local chapter of the NAACP had planned to hold a vote of no-confidence Thursday evening against Stawinski’s leadership. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — A Maryland police chief resigned this week within hours of a court filing that portrayed his department, one of the state’s largest, as an agency poisoned by a racist culture.

A complaint cited by the filing said a Prince George’s County police sergeant had a personalized license plate with an acronym for a vulgarity directed at President Barack Obama. Officers allegedly circulated pictures of a training dummy adorned with an Afro wig and Black face. A lieutenant derided Black Lives Matter protesters in comments quoted in a New York Times article.

Those allegations were described in a 94-page report filed Thursday by plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that accuses the department of condoning racism and retaliating against Black and Hispanic officers who complained about white colleagues’ bigoted behavior.

By the end of the day, the county’s top elected official announced that she had accepted the resignation of Police Chief Hank Stawinski.

Stawinski is the latest law-enforcement leader in the U.S. to face a reckoning amid national protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death last month. Police chiefs in Atlanta; Portland, Oregon; and Richmond, Virginia; also have resigned since a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while the Black man pleaded for air.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said Thursday’s court filing, a report prepared by an expert witness for the plaintiffs, wasn’t a factor in her decision to accept Stawinski’s resignation. She said she had given the matter “much thought” for months.

“I am under no illusion, no illusion, that there aren’t things that are broken in our police department,” she said Friday. “Whatever we find that is broken, I assure you that I will fix it.”

Prince George’s County abuts Washington, D.C., and has more than 900,000 residents. The county is predominantly Black, but its police department has a greater percentage of white officers than Black officers, the lawsuit said.

Stawinski, who was appointed to the position in 2016, didn’t attend the news conference where Alsobrooks introduced a 26-year department veteran, Hector Velez, to serve as interim police chief. A message for Stawinski emailed to a department spokeswoman wasn’t immediately returned.

“We’re at a crossroads where we have an opportunity to choose a path that unites us,” Velez said.

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 officers. Many of the allegations in Thursday’s court filing were outlined in the lawsuit or have been public for even longer.

In August 2018, for instance, Stawinski apologized for a since- deleted Facebook Live video in which an officer speaking to children refers to a “Black bad guy.” The officer, who was giving a K-9 demonstration, said police dogs could smell detect a person’s odor “if a Black bad guy is running and drops” an item.

Joe Perez, a retired officer who is one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, believes the protests over Floyd’s death hastened Stawinski’s departure.

“I think the timing was right because people are tired of racism, discrimination and targeting of minorities,” said Perez, who has claimed he was passed over for promotions because he spoke out against discrimination.

The NAACP’s local branch had planned to hold a vote of no-confidence against Stawinski’s leadership on Thursday evening. Branch president Bob Ross said he personally likes Stawinski but believed the department needs new leadership.

“I think it sort of snowballed on him and he didn’t know how to dig his way out of it,” Ross said Friday.

Michael Graham, an expert on police procedures hired by plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in his report that the police department typically didn’t investigate complaints of racial discrimination and harassment. For example, the lawsuit says Stawinski knew about the April 2016 complaint that a sergeant obtained customized license plates for a personal vehicle with an acronym for a vulgarity directed at Obama. But the complaint wasn’t investigated, and the sergeant not only wasn’t disciplined, he was promoted to lieutenant, the suit says.

Alsobrooks said the county will conduct a national search for a new chief. She wouldn't comment on the allegations in Thursday’s court filing. In a February court filing, county attorneys said the lawsuit is replete with “numerous, vaguely-alleged acts that are untethered to the work experiences of the individual Plaintiffs.”

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, including punitive damages, as well as a court order requiring the county to 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 “structures or practices” that negatively impact officers.