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PG police officers file federal lawsuit alleging discrimination, retaliation

Police officers of color in Prince George’s County filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the work environment in the county police department is “pervaded by race discrimination and retaliation.”

The lawsuit, announced by the ACLU of Maryland, claims white officers use racial slurs, abuse their power against civilians and steal departmental funds and property. The alleged conduct has “undermined the effectiveness of the (Prince George’s Police Department) to serve a community whose residents are 85 percent People of Color.”

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. The plaintiffs include 11 officers, the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and United Black Police Officers Association.

In addition to the county, the complaint names Chief Henry P. Stawinski III and other members of the department’s leadership who have allegedly “overseen an outrageous pattern of retaliation against Officers of Color … because they have complained about racism and unprofessional conduct.”

A spokesperson for the police department was not immediately available for comment.

The alleged retaliation has included investigations against complaining officers, transfers to less desirable assignments and denied promotions. The plaintiffs also claim officers of color are punished more harshly for infractions than white officers guilty of the same conduct.

The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relieve as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

The complaint alleges a hostile work environment created by derogatory remarks and disparate treatment. The plaintiffs cite examples of officers being subjected to complaints and at times recommended for termination but accuse leaders of ignoring complaints or overruling these recommendations.

“We ask officers to serve their communities justly and without bias. They are entitled to the same in the workplace,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil rights and Urban Affairs.

Thomas Boone, president of the United Black Police Officers Association, said it seems like white officers want to “break” officers of color and drive them from the department.

Sonya Zollicoffer, one of the plaintiffs, said she was sexually harassed by her field training officer soon after she joined the department. Although her complaint against him was sustained, she said, there was retaliation.

“I have been targeted, blackballed, retaliated against and made an outcast because I spoke up against the mishandling of internal investigations and biased treatment against people who filed complaints on white officers,” she said in a statement. “I spoke up when I saw African Americans fired and disciplined without just cause, while white officers who engaged in real misconduct were promoted up the ranks over and over again. I took an oath to serve my community not to be part of the police department in wrongdoing.”

The plaintiffs are represented by John Freedman, Peter Grossi Jr., Adam Pergament, Titalayo Rasaki, Matthew Lanahan and Matthew Horton from Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in Washington D.C.; Jonathan Smith and Dennis Corkery from the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, and Deborah Jeon from the ACLU of Maryland.

The case is Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association NCR et al. v. Prince George’s County et al., 8:18-cv-03821.


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