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Prince George's County police chief latest to face reckoning amid protests

A Maryland police chief resigned June 19 within hours of a court filing that portrayed his department, one of the state’s largest, as an agency poisoned by a racist culture.

A complaint cited by the filing said a Prince George’s County police sergeant had a personalized license plate with an acronym for a vulgarity directed at President Barack Obama. Officers allegedly circulated pictures of a training dummy adorned with an Afro wig and black face. A lieutenant derided Black Lives Matter protesters in comments quoted in a New York Times article.

Those allegations were described in a 94-page report filed last Thursday by plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that accuses the department of condoning racism and retaliating against black and Hispanic officers who complained about white colleagues’ bigoted behavior.

By the end of the day, the county’s top elected official announced that she had accepted the resignation of Police Chief Hank Stawinski.

Stawinski is the latest law-enforcement leader in the U.S. to face a reckoning amid national protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death last month. Police chiefs in Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; and Richmond, Va; also have resigned since a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while the black man pleaded for air.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said Thursday’s court filing, a report prepared by an expert witness for the plaintiffs, wasn’t a factor in her decision to accept Stawinski’s resignation. She said she had given the matter “much thought” for months.

“I am under no illusion, no illusion, that there aren’t things that are broken in our police department,” she said Friday. “Whatever we find that is broken, I assure you that I will fix it.”

The county is predominantly black, but its police department has a greater percentage of white officers than black officers, the lawsuit said.

Stawinski, who was appointed to the position in 2016, didn’t attend the news conference where Alsobrooks introduced a 26-year department veteran, Hector Velez, to serve as interim police chief. A message for Stawinski emailed to a department spokeswoman wasn’t immediately returned.

“We’re at a crossroads where we have an opportunity to choose a path that unites us,” Velez said.

Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, sued the county and Stawinski in December 2018 on behalf of several current and former officers. Many of the allegations in Thursday’s court filing were outlined in the lawsuit or have been public for even longer.

In August 2018, for instance, Stawinski apologized for a since-deleted Facebook Live video in which an officer speaking to children refers to a “black bad guy.” The officer, who was giving a K-9 demonstration, said police dogs could smell detect a person’s odor “if a black bad guy is running and drops” an item.

Joe Perez, a retired officer who is one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, believes the protests over Floyd’s death hastened Stawinski’s departure.

“I think the timing was right because people are tired of racism, discrimination and targeting of minorities,” said Perez, who has claimed he was passed over for promotions because he spoke out against discrimination.

The NAACP’s local branch had planned to hold a vote of no-confidence against Stawinski’s leadership on Thursday evening. Branch president Bob Ross said he personally likes Stawinski but believed the department needs new leadership.

“I think it sort of snowballed on him and he didn’t know how to dig his way out of it,” Ross said Friday.

Michael Graham, an expert on police procedures hired by plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in his report that the police department typically didn’t investigate complaints of racial discrimination and harassment. For example, the lawsuit says Stawinski knew about the April 2016 complaint that a sergeant obtained customized license plates for a personal vehicle with an acronym for a vulgarity directed at Obama. But the complaint wasn’t investigated, and the sergeant not only wasn’t disciplined, he was promoted to lieutenant, the suit says.

Alsobrooks said the county will conduct a national search for a new chief. She wouldn’t comment on the allegations in Thursday’s court filing. In a February court filing, county attorneys said the lawsuit is replete with “numerous, vaguely-alleged acts that are untethered to the work experiences of the individual Plaintiffs.”

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, including punitive damages, as well as a court order requiring the county to abolish racial discrimination within its police department.

In October 2017, Stawinski said the Justice Department was investigating allegations that the department’s employment practices discriminated against Hispanics and blacks. At the time, Stawinski said he would cooperate with the federal investigation and end any “structures or practices” that negatively impact officers.

Former Baltimore mayor pleads guilty to perjury

Baltimore’s disgraced former mayor pleaded guilty to a state perjury charge Friday for failing to disclose a business interest relating to her “Healthy Holly” children’s books on her financial disclosure forms when she was a state senator.

Catherine Pugh, a 70-year-old Democrat, already has been sentenced to three years in federal prison for netting hundreds of thousands of dollars in the self-dealing scandal over the books that touted exercise and nutrition. She is scheduled to report to federal prison next week in Alabama. Last year, she pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

She answered “yes” quietly through a mask when asked by her attorneys whether she understood the plea agreement on the perjury charge. She was sentenced to six months in jail to be served concurrently with her federal sentence.

Judge Mark Crooks said he was saddened for the city of Baltimore, which has struggled with high violent crime, when he heard of the charges against her.

“It forced you to leave the helm of the ship in the middle of the tempest,” Crooks said.

Charlton Howard, the state prosecutor who brought the charge, said after the sentencing that ensuring elected officials are transparent about their business relationships is essential to maintaining integrity in government. He noted that she reported other business interests on her financial disclosure forms, but not “Healthy Holly.”

“In order for us in the state and for the state prosecutor’s office to have the best opportunity to battle corruption, the first important step is transparency. That’s the reason behind the financial disclosure forms, so that the public doesn’t have to guess at what are the financial ties that our public officials have,” Howard said.

Pugh served in the Maryland Senate from 2007 to 2016, when she was elected Baltimore’s mayor. She resigned as mayor under pressure last year as authorities investigated bulk sales of her paperbacks, which netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pugh earned at least $345,000 in income in 2016 through sales of her books but failed to mention her ownership in financial disclosure forms, which are filed with the Maryland State Ethics Commission and signed under the penalties of perjury, according to the state prosecutor’s office.

In the federal case, Pugh admitted to defrauding purchasers of her books to pay for straw donations to her political campaign for mayor and to fund the purchase and renovation of a house in Baltimore.

She also admitted to selling her books to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she had served as a board member.

The medical system paid Pugh a total of $500,000 for 100,000 copies that were meant to be distributed to schoolchildren, but about 60,000 of those books were sent to a city warehouse and a Pugh office where thousands were removed to give to other customers. Prosecutors say Pugh never delivered the other 40,000 books the health system purchased for city schools.

While serving in the state Senate, Pugh sat on a committee that funded the medical system. She also sat on the hospital network’s board from 2001 until the scandal erupted in March. Pugh returned the last $100,000 payment.

Maryland ICU workers urge caution as states begin to reopen

Respiratory therapist Kevin Cole and his colleagues at an intensive care center in Fort Washington have watched COVID-19 patients die and consoled their families. They’ve celebrated as some patients recovered enough to leave. But as soon as beds become available, they begin to fill up again.

So even as the state takes the first step toward reopening, they’re not ready to let down their guard — and they say the public shouldn’t be either.

“I’m pumping my brakes,” said Cole, who works at the Fort Washington Medical Center ICU, which rescinded its stay-at-home order and started reopening June 1.

“I think it’s still too early,” he said. “It wouldn’t bother me not to be able to go and sit down in the restaurant for the rest of the year. It wouldn’t bother me at all. I wish more people would take this into consideration.”

President Donald Trump has been urging states to reopen after months of lockdown because of the pandemic and the resulting economic recession.

Although there’s been an overall drop in daily deaths nationwide, several states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas, have reported surges in cases after taking steps to reopen.

Overall, Prince Georges County has had about 650 COVID-19 deaths and leads the state of Maryland with more than 17,600 confirmed cases of the virus, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University.

“So if I had the ability, the ability to go out ... I would opt not to only because I, I feel like we’re still in the thick of it all,” said Jonae Cussaac, a registered nurse in the ICU at the Fort Washington Medical Center.

From a safe interior hallway, at the ICU, clinical staff monitor patients’ vital signs on computers and double-check their oxygen equipment through large windows on the doors that seal off the isolated ICU units.

The hospital only had four ICU beds at the start of the pandemic, but recently opened a modular unit on their campus with 16 ICU units that use negative room pressure to isolate COVID positive patients from the rest of the facility.

Cole said he sees patients dying from the virus every day and has trouble comprehending the sudden return of crowded public places where it’s tough to social distance, like the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality, Trump’s first post-quarantine election rally in Oklahoma over the weekend or people just lounging on beaches.

The pandemic is “far from being over,” and the public needs to take it seriously, he said. “They need to follow the guidelines. Social distancing. Wearing a mask when you go out in public, washing your hands constantly.”

There are regular reminders in the ICU about how easily the virus can spread.

For registered nurse Trakina Hogan, it’s the constant donning and doffing of a full set of personal protective equipment required to enter rooms with COVID-positive patients.

“This is a real thing. It’s not fake. It is definitely one that we need to take serious precautions on,” Hogan said. “Keep our mask on, keep our hands washed, and know that we’re here for them.”

And like her colleagues, she’s not ready to venture out to restaurants or other public places. “Continue to do my job at work and going home to my kids. That’s, that’s enough for me. I don’t need to be out in the public just yet,” she said.

Dr. Karen Dixon, medical director of the hospital’s Emergency Department, is wary of the trying times that lie ahead because there is no cure or vaccine to protect against the virus. She described the current state at the hospital as “controlled chaos.”

And while the medical staff has settled into a routine, there’s still an emotional toll from caring for seriously ill coronavirus patients.

“I think the fear of not knowing what to expect kind of sticks with you because you as the bedside nurse, that you’re there to comfort them,” Cussaac said. “No family around, no one able to visit them, so when my patients have that amount of anxiety, just knowing that I’m that person. I have to deliver the comfort. I have to deliver the care.”

One source of motivation for the clinical staff comes from communities around Fort Washington who have been donating free meals to the hospital almost every day. A “We Love Our Nurses” sign sits near the main entrance.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Police investigate weekend murder-suicide in Suitland

The Prince George’s Police Department’s homicide unit investigated a murder/suicide that occurred at a Suitland residence early Saturday morning. The preliminary investigation indicated the dead suspect shot and killed one man before turning the gun on himself. The suspect is Addon Rush Jr., 30, of Oxon Hill. The victim is Kevin Williams, 51, of Suitland.

According to PGPD reports, at approximately 12:50 a.m. on June 20, officers responded to St. Barnabas Road for the report of a shooting. They located Rush with what is believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Williams was also located suffering from a gunshot wound. They were both pronounced dead a short time later.

The preliminary investigation indicated Rush shot Williams during an argument.

Anyone with information on this case is asked to call 301-516-2512. Callers wishing to remain anonymous may call Crime Solvers at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477), or go online at www.pgcrimesolvers.com, or use the “P3 Tips” mobile app (search “P3 Tips” in the Apple Store or Google Play to download the app onto your mobile device.) Refer to case 20-0029482.

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

Police investigate June 6 shooting

The Prince George’s Police Department homicide detectives are now leading the investigation into a shooting that occurred June 6 in Capitol Heights. The victim is Russell Buckner Jr., 34, of Capitol Heights, who died of his injuries on June 16.

According to PGPD reports, at approximately 10 p.m. on June 6, patrol officers were called to Leroy Gorham Drive for a shooting. Buckner was discovered outside suffering from a gunshot wound and was rushed to an area hospital. He died 10 days later.

Detectives are actively working to identify a suspect(s) and a motive. Preliminarily, detectives do not believe this was a random crime.

Anyone with information on this case is asked to call 301-516-2512. Callers wishing to remain anonymous may call Crime Solvers at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477), or go online at www.pgcrimesolvers.com, or use the “P3 Tips” mobile app (search “P3 Tips” in the Apple Store or Google Play to download the app onto your mobile device.) Refer to case 20-0027468.

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

Airmen from the 89th Aerial Port Squadron offload personal protective equipment donated by the Jordanian government on Joint Base Andrews on June 23. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will distribute the supplies to various states throughout the country.