Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

NAACP: County losing trust in officials

Botched raid, inmate death cited

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Susan Whitney/The Gazette
June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP, held a press conference Tuesday to comment on what she described as "a lack of progress" with the investigation into the death of an inmate at the county jail. She also spoke in opposition to how the raid at the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo was handled.

Saying that Prince George's County police and corrections officers have cast "a cloud over this county," the head of the county NAACP called this week for investigators to speak out and update the six-week-old probe into the death of a suspected police killer at the county jail.

"People are losing the trust they had in the county government," said June White Dillard, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a Tuesday press conference. "The longer it takes, the more people will begin to suspect that people are trying to back away."

Dillard and other group members called for the state medical examiner to release a final report about the death of Ronnie White, a 19-year-old who was found dead in his solitary cell in the Upper Marlboro jail on June 29.

Investigators said Tuesday that the case is still under review.

White had been arrested a day earlier on charges that he struck county police officer Richard S. Findley with a stolen truck in Laurel, killing him. After a preliminary examination determined the case to be a homicide, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) decried White's death, noting that he allegedly died of asphyxiation and that he had two broken bones in his neck.

"If we have vigilante justice, our society will fall apart," Johnson said at a press conference days after the death in June. "If we have these kinds of acts, and if we tolerate these kinds of acts, then the covenants [of law] are superfluous. ... So we are pretty angry about what has unfolded."

Wanda Johnson, White's aunt, said Tuesday that the teen also had several broken ribs.

After suspicions were raised that jail guards played a role in White's death, county police turned over the investigation to the Maryland State Police. Since then, a lawyer for the county corrections officers' association asserted that White's autopsy may be changed to show that he killed himself, though examiners have said their findings have not changed.

Elena Russo, a state police spokeswoman said Tuesday that the department has not finished its review.

"We want to do a thorough investigation," Russo said. "We want to do everything we can."

A spokeswoman for the state medical examiner said the office is still waiting for the results of an independent examination of White's brain and nervous system, and that Dillard was updated on the status of the examination on Monday.

To follow national accreditation standards, the medical examiner tries to finish all reports within 60 days, placing an expected completion date by next week.

"The report is not complete," said spokeswoman Cindy Feldstein. "It is pending a neuropathology report. We strive to complete them within the 60-day guideline set forth by the National Association of Medical Examiners."

Dillard said if the autopsy is changed from an apparent strangulation, it would reinforce suspicions about a county law enforcement cover-up.

"I don't believe anybody in this county would believe this is a suicide," she said.

Vernon Herron, deputy chief administrative officer for public safety for the county, called for patience as investigators review White's death, which he stressed was not related to the police department.

"We also are waiting for answers from the state investigation. Like the public, we want answers," he said Tuesday. "But we want them to gather all the information before making their statement. Once the facts come out, we will be the first to take the appropriate action against anyone who did something inappropriate or improper."

The death of White, who is not related to Dillard, is one of two high-profile missteps for county law enforcement, which includes the police, sheriff's department and the department of corrections. Until they signed an agreement for independent monitoring in 2003, the county police department was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for a series of shootings and civil rights violations.

"We had gotten out of our redneck, blue-collar mentality," Dillard said, adding: "This is causing a reversal of that confidence."

Dillard also said the July 29 law enforcement raid of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo's home has further tainted the county's reputation. After tracking a package of marijuana to Calvo's house, deputies obtained a search warrant and entered the building without knocking, shooting and killing his two Labrador retriever dogs.

Police last week arrested a deliveryman suspected of using his route to pick up the drugs and have cleared Calvo of any involvement, though they would not apologize for the raid. The case has made national headlines, and FBI officials are reviewing the incident.

"If this had been a young African-American male in a home with 23 pounds of marijuana, he would be sitting in county jail," Dillard said.

Reached by phone, Calvo agreed that his case and others are raising concerns.

"Injustice at the hands of law enforcement happens on a regular basis. My wife and I know that most people don't have the support and the resources that we do," Calvo said. "We have a new understanding of what so many people face on a regular basis."

But Herron said the two cases were "not indicative of how we treat our citizens."

"The Prince George's County Police Department and all the public safety agencies have made tremendous strides," said Herron, who said the county aggressively investigates complaints about officers and misconduct. "We have partnered with our community to bring crime down in the county."

E-mail Daniel Valentine at dvalentine@gazette.net.

See video of the NAACP news conference at www.gazette.net.