The complex issue of race relations and public safety took center stage last week during a town hall gathering at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Md.
Coordinated by the Office of the State's Attorney for Prince George's County, the two-hour event, which attracted an audience of about 100, covered broad territory with moments of enthusiastic applause.
Angela Alsobrooks, state's attorney for Prince George's County, said at the forum which took place on April 26, that there's a delicate balance between preventing crime and protecting the public.
"It's a tough job officers have protecting the community," Alsobrooks said.
"Although tonight is not about Trayvon Martin [the teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla.], we believe we have an excellent opportunity to talk about race and public safety," she said. "We all are interested in moving forward."
The evening's dialogue, moderated by Michael Higginbotham, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, covered relationship building between residents and the police, legislative efforts to address public safety issues, how the church and a civil rights group view their roles and the responsibilities of members of the community.
Panelists included Alsobrooks; Mark Magaw, Prince George's County (PGC) police chief; Craig Howard, PGC deputy police chief; Joseline Pena-Melnyd, Maryland House delegate for District 21; Cheye Calvo, mayor of Berwyn Heights; Tony Lee, senior pastor of Community of Hope AME Church, and Bob Ross, president of the PGC Branch of the NAACP.
Several panelists made references to the Trayvon case in Florida ranging from how Florida and Maryland laws differ to how the investigation was handled. While Maryland does not have a stand-your-ground law similar to Florida's, it does have the Castle doctrine which provides civil immunity if there is a death or injury while an individual is defending their home or dwelling, according to several panelists.
Pena-Melnyd said legislators deal with a number of prospective bills each session concerning public safety, law enforcement and the judicial system. She added that the Black Caucus attempts to be proactive concerning law and justice.
One question posed by an audience member concerned what the community can do to increase trust and respect.
Ross responded that getting more involved is crucial.
"A lot of policing you can do yourself with a kind word," Ross said. "Learn to be a better neighbor and friend."
Alsobrooks said individuals should respect the judicial system and embrace their part in it, such as serving on juries and being witnesses. People complain about being called for jury duty but if it were outlawed there would be public outcry, she said.
Two of the panelists – Calvo and Lee – briefly shared less-than-positive run-ins with law enforcement. Last year, Calvo settled a lawsuit with Prince George's County resulting from a 2008 incident in which a sheriff's department SWAT team stormed his house and shot his dogs. Out of the settlement, reforms in how officers conduct such operations are being addressed, Calvo said.
"We need to have more transparency on how police are doing their jobs, why it takes years to fire a rogue police officer," Calvo said. "The answers are ugly and we need to shine some light on it."
Magaw acknowledged incidents such as the one Calvo described as "making us better. Procedures are being put in place that are going to make us better."
He said that during the past 18 months, eight people in the police department have been fired and that he does not tolerate violation of the rights and trust of the community.
Magaw said the Prince George's police of 2012 is markedly different from decades ago.
"If we make a mistake, we are willing to fix it," Magaw said.
Craig pointed out the diversity of the current force and the numerous partnerships and relationships that have been established.
"I am very proud of this police department," Craig said. "I could not sit here in good conscience and listen to some of the things being said. It's not the same as in '75, '85, '95. Most complaints are not about police officers and race relations."
The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Ross said that with about 30 other police departments in Prince George's County, it's difficult to monitor all of them. Other municipalities' failings often reflect badly on Prince George's County police, he said.
"We have tried to make sure we are transparent," Magaw said.
Toward the end of the program, a woman interrupted the discussion and said that three years ago her son was shot multiple times by law enforcement officials who were exonerated of wrongdoing. Alsobrooks expressed sympathy for the woman's loss and said she was willing to meet with her privately. The chief said he would meet with the woman too.
Higginbotham told the crowd that the forum was a positive initiative.
"This is something unique," he said. "It's not something [that] gets done in every jurisdiction. This is very, very significant."