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Jewish World Review July 19, 2001 / 28 Tamuz 5761

Philip Terzian

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Deadly forces


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE Washington Post recently ran an interesting series on the Prince George's County, Md., police department.

Prince George's County, which used to be a white, blue-collar suburb with a rural culture -- and something of an inferiority complex about its wealthier, better-educated neighbor, Montgomery County -- is now predominantly black, densely-populated and middle-class. People fleeing the District of Columbia for greener pastures have gravitated to "PG" in huge numbers in recent years, and it is now governed by a largely black political class. The county executive has ambitions to be governor, and the state's attorney would like to be county executive. Its legislators wield power in the State House at Annapolis, and its congressman, Albert Wynn (D), co-authored the House alternative to the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill.

In many respects, Prince George's County is a racial success story: The economy is healthy, McMansions keep springing up on fallow farmland, and per-capita income for black families is the highest in America. There were pitched battles over school busing in the 1970s, but now that the system is almost uniformly African-American, court-ordered integration plans have been decently buried. The police department, however, remains a problem.

It appears that more people have been killed by the police in Prince George's County, during the past decade, than in any other jurisdiction in the land. And as the Post series documented, a disturbing number of those people died while in police custody.

Some of the cases are heartbreaking. One 59-year-old man, a longtime janitor at a local community college who did auto-detailing jobs on the side, bicycled over to a shopping mall one Saturday morning to hand out business cards. A store manager objected to soliciting customers on the premises, told the man to leave, and called the police. When the cops arrived, words were exchanged, and the man was handcuffed, dragged into a closet and, in effect, gagged and beaten to death. A grand jury declined to take action against the policemen because the events took place behind closed doors, and no one could be certain about who did what to whom.

Some of the cases are outrageous. A 25-year-old Howard University student driving his car was mistaken for a suspect in a crime by an undercover cop in his unmarked car. The policeman began pursuing the student, and chased him across three separate jurisdictions and the Potomac River before finally cornering him in a parking lot in Fairfax County, Va. When the student, in desperation, rammed the unmarked car, the Prince George's County policeman -- "fearing for his life," in the official report -- shot him to death. Once again, no action has been taken, or is likely to be taken, against the officer.

In the past, these cases might well have triggered civic discord, or at least vociferous complaints. Up until relatively recently, the Prince George's County police were overwhelmingly white, and there were celebrated incidents of police misconduct with racial overtones. But now, nearly half the department is black; and in the two cases cited, both victims and policemen were African-American.

One of the points of the series was the puzzlement of many observers (including the Post reporters themselves) about the lack of public outrage over these incidents. One Post columnist has theorized that black officers have merely "internalized" the brutal culture of old, all-white Prince George's County. Another has suggested that the comfortable, black middle-class residents of Prince George's County are just as disturbed about crime as any white suburbanites, and are equally willing to give the cops considerable latitude.

I would suggest that the problem transcends race. One of the presumptions of progressive social theory is that racial and ethnic diversity -- whatever that may mean -- are the keys to civic harmony. But Prince George's County demonstrates that, as another Post columnist has said, "a racially diverse police force under the command of black elected officials is no guarantee against police violence." Some of the worst police abuses against black Americans take place in cities governed by black mayors, served by black police chiefs and (predominantly) black officers. This is a police problem, not a species of racism.

Nor is the problem trivial. Criticism of police can be politically toxic. Judicial oversight of police departments is haphazard, and frequently nonexistent, around the country. The Fraternal Order of Police, like most unions, is primarily engaged in the business of protecting its incompetent members, and has blocked any number of minimal efforts to make officers accountable for misconduct -- including cops who routinely mistreat citizens, or kill them.

Of course, most cops are good cops, as they say, and a few bad apples can spoil the barrel. But with their code of secrecy about dangerous colleagues -- the famous "blue wall of silence" -- the good cops can be part of the problem as well.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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