Respond to this Article June 2001

Black and Blue

Why does America's richest black suburb have some of the country's most brutal cops?

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

No one had to warn Prince Jones about the police department in Prince George's County. The cops in Maryland's second most populous county had a reputation for turning routine traffic stops into Rodney King incidents sans video camera. Jones had told friends about his fear of the P.G. County police, and, according to them, Jones had even been pulled over and searched for drugs once before by a P.G. cop (who found none).

Jones' fear of police didn't match his profile. He was a Howard University student, a father, and a man of faith who never hesitated to dispense a religious aphorism to friends. He was also a fitness freak and personal trainer at Bally's Total Fitness. After leaving Howard, Jones became engaged to the mother of his child and planned to join the Navy. The son of a radiologist, he could have been a poster boy for middle-class black America.

So for the past few months, Jones' family and friends have been asking how he ended up slumped over the steering wheel of his Jeep Cherokee, a few blocks from his fiancée's home in Virginia, with four bullets in his back courtesy of a P.G. County police officer.

The official police account is that the shooting was a surveillance operation gone bad. In the early morning of Sept. 1, thinking they were trailing a suspect in a theft of an officer's gun, undercover narcotics detective Carlton Jones (unrelated) and a superior trailed Jones 15 miles from P.G. County, where he lived, through Washington, D.C., and finally into Fairfax, Va., where the two officers separated. Both officers were in plain clothes and unmarked cars. As Carlton Jones tells the story, Prince Jones, apparently discovering he was being followed, rammed the detective's car three times, forcing the officer to open fire in fear for his life.

But for those close to Prince Jones, the police account is simply an attempt to cover up a cold-blooded murder. Though it is within protocol for police to operate outside of their jurisdiction, a mistaken identity shooting is not. Neither is claiming to be a cop while raising a gun without a badge, which Carlton Jones did by his own admission. Perhaps most troubling is the profile of the suspect police claimed to be looking for---a stocky, 5-foot-6-inch man with dreadlocks. Jones was 6-foot-4-inches and slender, sporting closely cropped hair.

In over 30 years as Commonwealth attorney for Fairfax County, Robert Horan had never charged a police officer with a crime. After investigating Jones' death, he declined to break with tradition. Jones' death, which is still under internal investigation by the Prince George's County Police Department, sparked a minor furor at Howard University. Students marched on the Justice Department to demand a federal investigation. The controversial shooting rang out nationally as Al Sharpton promised to lead a march on P.G. County. The Washington Post weighed in with an editorial asserting that "the ultimate wrong was done to an innocent man." Even presidential candidate Al Gore dedicated a moment of silence to Jones.

For those who'd followed the news in the county over the past few years, Jones' killing was only the latest in a string of suspicious shootings, murders, and beatings that had occurred at the hands of P.G. County police officers. Jones was the 12th person shot over a 14-month period in the county. Five of those 12 died. Two other men, who were not shot, died in police custody.

The violence perpetrated by the P.G. cops is a curious development. Usually, police brutality is framed as a racial issue: Rodney King suffering at the hands of a racist white Los Angeles Police Department or more recently, an unarmed Timothy Thomas, gunned down by a white Cincinnati cop. But in more and more communities, the police doing the brutalizing are African Americans, supervised by African-American police chiefs, and answerable to African-American mayors and city councils. In the case of P.G. County, the brutality is cast against the backdrop of black America's power base, the largest concentration of the black middle class in the country.

A bedroom community of the nation's capital, Prince George's county is the only suburban county ever to become richer as it became blacker. According to the Census Bureau, the county, which is 63 percent black, had a median income of $47,000 in 1997, more than double the median income for African Americans and almost $10,000 more than the median income for whites.

Beyond economics, P.G. County's African-American residents boast a formidable amount of political power. The county executive, the state's attorney, and the chairman of the county council are all black, as are 41 percent of the police officers, including the one who killed Prince Jones. With political and economic clout have come all the trappings of opulence once denied African Americans. And in some ways, Prince George's shows integration taken to its most extreme, perhaps perverted, end---black people with the inalienable right to drive the same luxury cars, buy the same sprawling houses, and be just as apathetic as America's white elite.

Even with the death of Prince Jones, a native son of the black bourgeoisie, there has been very little outcry from the county's leadership. "I have yet to be contacted by any constituent who had anything to say about [Prince Jones' death]," County Councilmember Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) told The Washington Post shortly after Jones' shooting.

Police brutality may help Al Sharpton garner a spot on "Rivera Live," but the black uppercrust sees little point in putting the police on trial here in Prince George's County, or anywhere else in the nation for that matter. Like their white counterparts, African-Americans will countenance a few police thrashings if that's the price of keeping their Jags from getting jacked.

Famous Blue Beatdowns

In the folklore of urban black communities, tragic encounters with the police assume mythic proportions. For Detroit, there's Malice Green; in New York there's Abner Louima. Jones is the closest P.G. County has to a police-brutality martyr. But even before his death, the county could boast a healthy cross-section of shootings, maimings, and thrashings that would easily make the Blue Beatdowns Hall of Fame.

Police department officials assert that much of the controversy is the result of media hype. They say complaints against the department hit a 16-year low in 2000. In that same year, the department had only five shootings, a figure which compares well with neighboring Montgomery County's five police shootings and Washington D.C.'s seven, and is a 15-year low for P.G. county.

Still, neither of its neighboring jurisdictions has strung together so many questionable incidents the way Prince George's County has in recent years. It's hard to ignore the stories of people like Elmer Clayton Newman, who died last year after suffering two cracked ribs and a broken neck while, or after, being arrested. The officers who took custody of Newman, who was high on cocaine at the time, claimed Newman injured himself by repeatedly banging his head into a wall. No officer was charged in the case.

There's also 19-year-old Gary Albert Hopkins Jr., an unarmed college student, who was shot in 1999 by Officer Brian C. Catlett at a fire station. The police contend that Hopkins was reaching for another officer's gun when Catlett fired to stop him. After eight witnesses testifying before a grand jury directly contradicted the police version, Catlett made history by becoming the first police officer ever indicted in the county. Yet the parade of witnesses was ultimately not enough---Catlett was acquitted in February of this year.

Or again, there's Freddie McCollum, who in 1997 was stomped, beaten, and had a police dog unleashed on him in his own home. McCollum lost his right eye as a result of the drubbing. Police claimed his injuries were the result of his tumbling eight feet with two officers when the floor collapsed. Only McCollum, however, was injured. A jury didn't buy that explanation, and McCollum won a $4 million judgement against the county.

This litany of brutalities reads like a Quentin Tarantino interpretation of the Keystone Kops. And despite the lack of criminal prosecutions of cops---P.G. County has never convicted a police officer in a brutality case---the county's dark comedy has cost its taxpayers plenty. As of the end of last year, the county had been hit for no less than $6 million in damages for police misconduct. The trend was serious enough to draw federal attention. In November, the Justice Department decided to investigate the police department for patterns of brutality and misconduct.

Despite trouble serious enough to bring in the Justice Department's big guns, the county elite has treated the issue with indifference. "I think a lot of the citizens would like to not have to come out and deal with this," says Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the local NAACP chapter. "Although it's very clear that there are people with great individual wealth, we aren't ready to marshal our social capital to get into a big dog fight. Many of those in Prince George's County really are living pretty comfortable."

Rich, Black, and Apathetic

When I came to Washington, D.C., to attend college, one of my first lessons came from a couple of local cats who warned me about the cops. They weren't talking about Washington's blue, but Prince George's County's. I was told that if I wanted to be famous, I should go to Prince George's County and run a few red lights.

The reputation of Prince George's cops has changed little over the past 20 years, even as the county's demographics have shifted dramatically. During the days when Prince George's County was lily-white and voted George Wallace for president, Prince George's cops were well known as thugs. "The force was known as a bunch of cowboys who rode roughshod over citizens," says the NAACP's Hall.

Commander, Bureau of Patrol Gerald M. Wilson asserts that the department has exorcised its old demons, but that years ago its reputation bordered on Third-World. "Basically my recollection is that people said ŒPG cops, don't mess with them,'" recalls Wilson. "You wanted to avoid them at all costs. [If stopped] you would just stick your license through the window."

Perhaps the closest the county has come to community mobilization over police conduct was in the case of Terrance Johnson. In 1978, the 15-year-old Johnson and his older brother, Melvin, were taken into custody by Prince George's County police. At the station, Johnson alleged that he was beaten by a police officer, at which point he snatched the officer's gun and shot him and another officer as he attempted to flee.

Johnson did 17 years for murdering police officers James Brian Swart and Albert M. Claggett IV. The case polarized Prince George's black and white communities. In 1995, Johnson was paroled to much fanfare in the black community, which had sympathized with and even lionized him for defending himself against what they perceived as corrupt and brutal police. (The cheers fell silent when Johnson later shot himself after a failed robbery attempt in Hartford County, Md.)

In hindsight, the complexity of Johnson's case did not make him the best face for a campaign against police brutality. Perhaps this explains why the county's fledgling black bourgeoisie wanted little part of the controversy. The same year that Johnson killed two cops, the NAACP attempted to march on the county seat, claiming that they would draw 1,000 protesters. but gathered only 60, much to the dismay of then-chapter president Sylvester Vaughns. "Expecting a thousand people is not a hell of an objective," demurred Vaughns.

But apparently it is in Prince George's County, where at times the community seems to have felt more ire against the activists than the police. The county's NAACP has been the most consistent force in opposing police brutality, and yet it has frequently been dissed and dismissed as irrelevant. Some of this reflects broader problems for the organization on the national level, as well as internal strife within the local chapter. But a large part of it seemed to be that Prince George's black community was demonstrating the complexities of that very integration which the NAACP had for so long championed. As the community's affluence grew, its political agenda changed.

Prince George's County's black elite had for the most part attained their goals of becoming property owners with the same rights as all Americans. The fact that they were black was, at most, a minor inconvenience.

Black Power Outage

Prince George's County may have virtually no appetite for protest, but this isn't especially unusual among the nation's black elite. A few years ago, The Washington Post ran a Pulitzer-prize winning series which revealed that the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department had shot more people than any other big-city department in the country.

In consequence, the police made substantive changes, with the help of the Justice Department. The city has implemented non-lethal-force technologies, such as pepper spray, which it says will help reduce the number of fatal interactions between police and community members.

The changes seem to have worked. Since these new strategies were implemented, shootings resulting in death or injuries have dropped by 78 percent over two years, according to the department, with the number of deaths dropping from 12 to one. The number of times officers have fired their weapons, either accidentally or intentionally, has declined by 48 percent. And the crime rate has not risen under this lighter touch.

The clear beneficiaries of these improvements were the city's black citizens---most of those shot had been black. But in a city where the mayor and much of the city council is black, and which houses one of the most storied enclaves of old black money, most of the outrage that helped spur these changes came from a small group of activists---not from political leadership. Even The Washington Post was surprised by the lack of letters to the editor. Of course the District is not unique in this regard.

In New York, too, the high-profile murder of Amadou Diallo and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved has evoked little more than angry rhetoric in the city's formidable black community. Beyond Sharpton's invective, black political, civic, and business leaders have not flexed their collective muscle, and there has been no change in the department's policies. In the Ramparts scandal in Los Angeles, it was not the fury of the community that put the police department under fire, but the sloppiness of some very crooked cops.

At those times when African Americans have loudly confronted the issue of police brutality, they have frequently turned it into an employment issue, singling out the lack of minorities within various police departments as the root of the problem, rather than the behavior of the officers overall. The hiring strategy is an outgrowth of old-school Civil Rights and Black Power movement logic, which argues that African Americans will be more sympathetic to issues facing minorities than whites in the same jobs will be. When applied to law enforcement, the logic seems especially potent, given the history of black America's interactions with the police. It was the fallout from the Rodney King explosion that produced Willie Williams, the first African-American police chief in the history of the LAPD.

By such logic, affluent, black Prince George's County should have virtually eradicated police brutality. But this presumption ignores many of the nuances of African-American identity. In black America, race and ethnicity don't trump other things like class, gender, or sexual orientation, arguably because black identity is not just seen as an object of pride, but still as an obstacle to be overcome.

Indeed, outside of Prince George's County, the fault lines in the "minority representation" argument are causing tremors where you'd least expect them---in minority communities. Already, many big cities are evicting the first wave of black mayors, for whom race was a campaign bonus, and replacing them with white ones. Ditto for law enforcement: Los Angeles still has a black police commissioner, Bernard Parks, yet the city is currently embroiled in one of the biggest corruption scandals in the department's history.

The diversity approach is not completely flawed. Police brutality is an issue fraught with racial implications, if only because most of the victims are black, and black officers on the street may mitigate racial tension. But diversity in police departments is not a cure-all for brutality as long as African-American officers are bred on the same stereotypes as their white colleagues. As Jesse Jackson has noted, little old white ladies aren't the only people clutching their pocketbooks at the approach of a group of black males.

"I get more requests for police support than I get complaints," says Rep. Albert Wynn. "I get far more inquiries about how we can get more police out on the streets. People are very concerned about police brutality, but they're also concerned about safe streets and that issue can't be lost."

The situation in P.G. County suggests that police brutality is not the product of racism alone. Police forces are paramilitary institutions which by their very nature are prone to abuse of power---the psychological dynamics so dramatically illustrated 20 years ago by Phillip Zimbardo of Stanford in his study of prisons. Using student volunteers, Zimbardo showed convincingly that ordinary people put in positions of authority within a criminal justice setting would behave brutally as a way of controlling others. It was the circumstances which brought out the worst in people, rather than specific defects in the individuals themselves. Abusiveness, in fact, seemed the default position.

That's why, argues Ronald Hampton, executive director of National Black Police Association, diversifying police departments like P.G. County's won't make them any less violent. "Not if we are going to send [black officers] through the same training academy that [white officers] have been going through all along. The policies and practices will change when the philosophy changes. Why do we think that if we hire more blacks and women, that if we send them to the same institution, that things will change?"

Of course, some in Prince George's may not have a problem with the current "philosophy," so long as it stays in the county's poorer areas, where affluent black residents are just as likely as white ones to think the victims of police brutality have it coming.

"We expect that African Americans in power will do something different, especially as it relates to lower-income black people," says Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University and a resident of Prince George's County. "But the other part is that in many ways black people are no different than whites. There is a certain impatience with crime, and when police pounce on people there is some understanding."

Bad Odds

A few weeks after Prince Jones was killed, Howard University held a memorial. Those who spoke asked for God to fill their hearts with forgiveness for the officer who'd taken Jones' life. Friends of Jones spoke of his religious zeal and their deep belief that he was at Jesus' side. Several of them ended their eulogies in tears, as did university president Patrick Swygert, a man not known for public displays of emotion.

Perhaps the most poignant address came from Jones' mother, Mable Jones. While she sprinkled in a few words of rhetoric, Jones was much more concerned with the present than the afterlife. She asserted that her son's murder was a wake-up call. "It might be that God had a plan for me to move out of my comfortable suburban practice and speak out," she said, according to the Washington City Paper.

But her assertion stands in sharp contrast to the reality of Prince George's County, a place where no one is looking to be Al Sharpton. The truth is, the black middle class is not that much different from the white one. Just as affluent white people aren't too interested in the plight of poor whites, neither are affluent blacks especially concerned with their brothers in the ghetto---in fact, they may be even more eager to distance themselves from the ghetto than white people are trying to to distance themselves from the trailer park.

But as much as affluent blacks want to believe that money and power can insulate them from the effects of racism in this country, it is a delusion. White rich people might risk landing in a trailer park because of a bad turn of the economy, but the odds aren't nearly as high as those of a black middle-class man becoming the victim of police brutality, as Prince Jones so terribly discovered.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently for The Washington Monthly on race and culture.


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