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Prince George’s County settles lawsuit with Black, Hispanic officers

Prince George’s County will pay $8 million and its police department will change its methods for promoting officers to prevent the possibility of discrimination against Blacks and Hispanics who apply for promotion, under a settlement the department has reached with minority officers who claimed they were rejected due to illegal bias.

The agreement, which resolves a federal lawsuit, also calls on the department to adopt strong standards for investigating and resolving complaints of national origin and racial bias in police assignments and promotions, as well as periodic equal employment training for supervisors. The department’s new Office of Integrity and Compliance will monitor the policies to prevent discrimination and hold accountable officers who do not comply.

“I am pleased that we have settled this lawsuit,” Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a statement Tuesday.

“When it was first filed in December 2018, I promised our residents we would dig deeply into these claims, we would examine each point, and based on what I saw, I would be unafraid to make changes and address issues,” Alsobrooks added. “Since that day we have begun meaningful changes within the department and with this settlement we can now continue to move forward, focusing on implementing the necessary reforms within our police department to ensure that it exemplifies best practices in policing, to include fairness and equity in how we interact with those we serve and how we address internal challenges within the department. The residents of Prince George’s County will benefit from a department that treats all officers fairly and is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do.”

The settlement, announced Tuesday and effective on Saturday, followed U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang’s preliminary decision in April that the department’s promotion system has likely had an “adverse impact” on officers of color, as shown by their low promotion rates. Chuang also cited strong “circumstantial evidence” of bias, such as white officers being appointed to senior positions ahead of Blacks and Hispanics.

Twelve Black and Hispanic officers filed the lawsuit, challenging the county police force’s promotion system as violating their constitutional right to equal protection. The agreement calls on the county to pay about $2.3 million to the officers and their member organizations — including the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association NCR and United Black Police Officers Association — that were party to the lawsuit, according to their attorneys.

“We were committed to stand together for change,” Sonya Zollicoffer, vice president of the United Black Police Officers Association, said in a statement announcing the settlement. “As Black and Brown police officers, we dared to be different and go against the grain to stand for equality and justice even if it was only just us.”

The county will also pay $5 million in legal fees to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter, which represented the plaintiffs. The three groups stated the payment will fund future pro bono cases and charitable causes.

In addition, the county will reimburse the lawyers for their $825,000 in court costs and expenses, the attorneys said.

“It took tremendous bravery and boldness for the Black and Brown officers in the Prince George’s Police Department to blow the whistle on the entrenched racism and retaliation inflicted on them by white leadership for years,” Deborah Jeon, the ACLU of Maryland’s legal director, said in the statement announcing the settlement. “Today they are making a powerful mark on the policies and practices of the department with the goal of ending race discrimination, creating equitable opportunities, and ensuring accountability for officers who abuse community members.”

As of last year, the Prince George’s County Police Department was 43% Black, 42.5% White and 10.5% Hispanic, a racial composition not reflected in the senior ranks, according to data in Chuang’s April opinion.

White officers comprised 80.7% of the captain slots, while Blacks held 19.4 percent and Hispanics 0%. At the lieutenant level, Whites held 60.9% of the posts, with Blacks comprising 27.2% and Hispanics 5.4%.

White officers comprised 51.2% of the sergeants, while Blacks accounted for 41.4% and Hispanics comprised 5.4%.

The data also showed that the promotion rates among White officers between 2012 and 2019 was 66%, compared to 43% for Black and 47% for Hispanic officers.

The case was docketed at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt as Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association NCR, United Black Police Officers Association et al. v. Prince George’s County et al., No. 8:18-cv-03821-TDC.