WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – Prince George’s County, Md., residents have heard it all before: promises by county officials to root out corrupt and brutal police officers. But on June 30, residents were shocked again to learn that a 19-year-old Black man named Ronnie White, had been found slain in his maximum security jail cell, just hours after he was arrested and charged with first degree murder for the killing of White police Cpl. Richard Finley.
The Maryland medical examiner ruled that the Mr. White died from asphyxiation. Two small bones in his neck were broken. The FBI, which routinely investigates prison deaths, said it is focused on possible civil rights violations.
“If we have vigilante justice, our society will fall apart,” County Executive Jack Johnson, the county’s former prosecutor, told reporters after the partial autopsy results were announced. “If we tolerate these kinds of acts, the courts are superfluous.”
Those words fell largely on deaf ears in the state’s largest county, and the nation’s wealthiest and best-educated enclave of Black people which borders the nation’s capital. After decades of similar abuses in the community which changed to a Black majority in the early 1990s, the county now has Blacks who serve as police chief, state’s attorney, and chief executive. All have made similar public promises to curb police abuses, even as many fear violence against citizens continue.
The FBI, the Maryland State Police, and the state’s attorney’s office all declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation.
In one highly publicized case, the county’s former deputy Homeland Security chief, Police Cpl. Keith Washington, was convicted recently of manslaughter in the shooting death of a furniture deliveryman in his home last year.
In other recent instances however, police have beaten, shot and even ordered dogs to attack Black suspects in the county, usually without any punishment.
In the case of Mr. White, authorities revealed that only seven correctional officers, and an unknown number of Corrections Department supervisors had access to his cell, where he was monitored at least once every 30 minutes. At 10:15 Sunday morning June 29, Mr. White was observed sitting on his bunk. Fifteen minutes later he was dead.
Normally, Mr. White would have been moved to a jail outside Prince George’s County because his alleged crime involved county law enforcement officers. But because he was arrested late on a weekend night, the county didn’t follow that protocol.
The guards who were supervising Mr. White refused to cooperate. They all told investigators they were obtaining private attorneys. They were lining up behind what police critics call the “Blue Wall of Silence”–where police, regardless of race, honor the blue uniforms they wear above all other allegiances.
Vernon Herron, the county public safety director met with the guards at their morning roll call June 30, warning they could be fired for not cooperating with the homicide investigation.
The family of Mr. White is “absolutely, unequivocally outraged and incensed and deeply saddened for the loss of life of their loved one,” Bobby Henry, the family’s attorney told reporters. “A yet-to-be-identified person or persons took it upon themselves to be both the judge, the jury and the executioner.”
County NAACP chapter President June Dillard also spoke out. “We have a concern about the correctional officers not being willing to be interviewed and talk to investigators, because we have to find out exactly what went on,” she said in a broadcast interview. “Those people involved must be interviewed completely and fully.”
Residents complain they have heard all the assurances that the county would enforce the “rule of law” before.
“I will not tolerate anything short of constitutional enforcement of the laws of this county for all of its citizens,” then County Executive Wayne Curry told reporters in September, 2000 after a county police officer trailed Howard University student Prince Jones all the way to Virginia before fatally shooting him in an incident that outraged residents. The officer in that case was eventually cleared of criminal charges.
The death of Mr. Jones came at the end of a 13-month period in which county police shot 12 people, five fatally, and beat two other men to death. The Jones incident happened in the wake of a devastating Washington Post investigation that found from 1990 through 2000, county officers shot and killed people at rates exceeding those of nearly every other large police force in the nation.
The newspaper report revealed that all 122 shootings in its investigation–47 of which were fatal–were ruled justified by police officials.
“In that environment in P.G. County, where they have their own history of these types of things happening, whether they were in the police precinct, or in the holding facility, or actually in the jail prior to trial, there has always been that kind of violence that takes place when these types of incidents happen,” Ronald Hampton, of the National Black Police Association told The Final Call.
This killing may very well have been part of “some attempt at retribution for what the young kid did to the police officer,” Mr. Hampton continued.
The threat by county officials to fire officers who refuse to cooperate with the investigation, “is letting them off too much. If the officers didn’t do it, or they weren’t involved in it, why won’t they come and talk about what happened? Why would you rather be fired than tell the truth about what happened in the prison and not be a part of any conspiracy to kill that kid simply because he was involved in the death of that policeman? Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
The murder of Mr. White, “also points out that race is still a factor in the county. As much as they want to talk about the county has changed, and it has. The population make-up of the county has changed, but the police department is still disproportionately White, and some of those old wounds still exist in that county,” Mr. Hampton said.