December 2001

HEADLINE: KILLER COPS : a case study in callousness; Maryland law protects corrupt police in Prince Georges County


In the last decade, they killed and maimed more unarmed people than the Unabomber and the Aryan Nation combined. They have a worse human rights record than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If they were a foreign-based death cult like Hamas, and you contributed to their cause, you would face up to 10 years in jail for supporting terrorism. Instead, they are supported with your tax dollars.

They are the 1400 members of the Prince George's County police department.

Prince George's County, adjacent to Washington, D.C., is home to thousands of federal bureaucrats. In a series published in July, The Washington Post highlighted some of the police department's accomplishments: "Since 1990, Prince George's police have shot 122 people, killing 47 of them. Almost half of those shot were unarmed, and many had committed no crime."

Among the shootings the police department ruled as justified: "An unarmed construction worker was shot in the back after he was detained in a fast-food restaurant. An unarmed suspect died in a fusillade of 66 bullets as he tried to flee in a car from police. A homeless man was shot when police mistook his portable radio for a gun. And an unarmed man was killed after he pulled off the road to relieve himself."

Some local police practices appear to be borrowed from South Africa in its police-state days. "No one knows how many people have died while in the custody of Prince George's officers," the Post noted. "Police said they don't keep track of such deaths. By examining autopsy reports and other documents, however, The Washington Post was able to identify 12 people who have died in police custody since 1990."

The Post discovered the death of one person in police custody from a workers' compensation filing by a policeman who requested disability payments because he suffered "emotional" problems after permanently subduing an arrestee. At least one suspect died after being severely beaten while wearing handcuffs. Medical examiners have ruled two of the deaths in police custody to have been homicides--yet the department has not disciplined a single officer in an incustody death.

The system is scrupulous and idealistic when it comes to respecting the rights of killer cops. Police are protected by the "Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights"--a Maryland law (similar to laws in many other states) that prohibits the questioning of a police officer for 10 days after any incident in which he or she used deadly force. In Prince George's County, there is no greater offense than prematurely asking a cop why he gunned down a citizen. The Post noted that "a lawyer or a police union official is always summoned to the scene of a shooting to make sure no one speaks to the officer who pulled the trigger." A toothless citizen police-oversight panel complained that the 10-day rule "invites abuse and raises serious concerns about collusion and the code of silence among officers."

Even after the 10-day muzzle expires, police enjoy their version of the Miranda warning. Nothing they say can be used against them in any criminal proceedings. They enjoy the privilege of confidentiality--all statements to internal affairs investigators are kept from public scrutiny.

This bizarre policy might be unnecessary. One homicide detective who looked into the suspicious death of a man in police custody explained that he did not try to question the two policemen involved "because he didn't want to violate their constitutional rights against self-incrimination." In some cases, police are not questioned about shooting civilians until months after the victim has died.

Prince George's seems devoted to covering up official killings. County lawyers refused to provide internal police records of police shooting investigations because it would be "contrary to the public interest"--even though state law seems to require that such information be revealed. Wayne Curry, the first black chief executive officer of Prince George's County (which is the nation's most affluent majority-black county), revels in the bad-boy record of his police, declaring last year that "people don't want no pansy police force."

Many other professions keep records of lethal mistakes, although reluctantly. Ford and Firestone issued a recall after a flurry of accidents. Medical errors cause tens of thousands of deaths every year. Since 1990, in an effort to protect us from incompetent practitioners, a national data bank has tried to track iatrogenic, or "doctor-caused," fatalities. We don't have a word for "police-caused" deaths.

In 1994 Congress passed a law requiring national record keeping on police shootings, justified or otherwise. However, neither the Justice Department nor most local police departments have bothered to keep track. As a result, it is difficult to know how many other police departments may have cops as trigger-happy--and as legally untouchable--as those in Prince George's County.