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La Plata residents gathered Saturday morning with members of the Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to discuss issues faced by residents of Phoenix Run and the surrounding area.

The meeting was to address an incident that occurred in October, in which, former NAACP president Bill Braxton said, a young man, whom the group didn’t name in a statement, was unfairly targeted by two members of the La Plata Police Department following a complaint he registered with the office regarding one of the officers in question.

According to the report Braxton read, the youth was walking with friends from a convenience store when the two officers spotted him and began yelling at him. The officers then stopped and proceeded to frisk the boy before giving him a $50 citation for walking in the road rather than on the sidewalk. Earlier that day, the boy had registered a formal complaint regarding an earlier incident with one of the officers.

“It touches me that we have a decent young man trying to do the right thing, with no record, and they have the audacity to treat him like this,” Braxton said. “What do you think would have happened to him if this had occurred at night with him alone?”

From spending time in the neighborhood the previous week and going around to inform citizens about the upcoming meeting, Braxton said he felt the area had gained an unfair reputation.

“We went out there last week, and we talked to everyone, including the young ‘hoods,’” Braxton said. “You hear things about different neighborhoods getting labeled, and we don’t look at it that way.”

Although the incident in question had since been resolved, NAACP President Janice Wilson said in a phone interview before the meeting that the group hoped to give residents a chance to voice any related concerns that they might have.

Fred McNeil, a La Plata resident who does not live in Phoenix Run but has “plenty of friends” who do, said he did not feel the alleged actions of a few police officers reflected on the body as a whole.

“The police are there to serve and protect. A few take that off center, but the overwhelming majority are,” McNeil said. “I think where we sometimes go wrong is if you teach your kids the police are all bad, that plants the seed of mistrust. Anybody can have a bad day, and that’s why it’s so important for [the police] to demonstrate the desire to help in a positive manner, to establish mutual ongoing respect.”

NAACP member Joliet Lee encouraged residents to voice any concerns that they might have to help make progress.

“It’s your responsibility because people like you who complain will eventually make a difference,” Lee said. “It’s our responsibility to complain.”

La Plata Ward I Councilman Wayne Winkler, whose district partially encompasses Phoenix Run, said he was “very saddened” to hear of the issues facing the residents.

“If people have problems with the La Plata Police Department, I’d urge them to go to our website. All our names and contact information are there,” Winkler said. “We do follow up when people make these calls.”

Winkler said the Charles County Sheriff’s Office investigates concerns about harassment rather than doing so internally, to provide an outside perspective.

Wilson said she was dismayed with the meeting’s low attendance.

“I wish that this room was full because I don’t think that people know the power they have,” Wilson said. “You have a voice. It’s a powerful voice, and you need to use it.”

La Plata Police Chief Cassin Gittings said in a phone interview Monday that he was unaware of the NAACP meeting held Saturday. Rather than responding to the allegation that the department unfairly targeted anyone, Gittings urged La Plata residents in an email statement to contact him directly with any concerns. He can be reached at 301-934-1500.

lrenner@somdnews.com