Laurel residents spoke out against alleged acts of violence perpetrated by members of the Laurel Police Department against blacks in a demonstration before and during the City Council meeting Monday, Sept. 10.
The demonstration, which began outside the Laurel Municipal Center prior to the meeting, was planned by the Prince George's County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose members have actively protested against the Laurel Police Department after a video of a police officer apparently striking a black man in handcuffs aired on a local news broadcast last month.
NAACP branch President Bob Ross said what started as a single incident involving one officer has exposed a larger issue.
"The video was just a catalyst," Ross said outside the Laurel Municipal Center Monday night. "It's unacceptable (and) it's empowering the community to take charge of the situation."
At the council meeting, several Laurel residents testified before Mayor Craig Moe and City Council members with personal anecdotes about alleged conduct of Laurel Police officers.
Laurel resident Aarika Scott told the council that in July, without provocation, Laurel Police officers assaulted, maced and exposed her after she was stopped for driving with an expired license plate.
Scott said an officer told her to exit the car and then grabbed her by the arm; when she told the officer to let go, she said, the incident escalated. Scott said she was pulled out of the car and became exposed when officers attempted to subdue her.
Scott was charged with resisting arrest and failing to obey an officer on July 25, according to online court records.
Scott said she was held at the police station for two days and was not allowed to make a phone call.
Scott's mother, Benita Scott, said when she went to the Laurel Police Department to file a missing person report for her daughter, officers neglected to tell her that her daughter was being held until hours after she left.
"I lived the nightmare," Benita Scott said. "This to me was one of the worst cases of violence against a woman I've ever heard."
Laurel native Devan Hebron, 50, said he's experienced incidents where he's been incited by Laurel Police officers, but that doesn't mean they are all bad.
"You do have some bad seeds, but we're not saying they are all bad officers," Hebron said.
Laurel Boys and Girls Club volunteer Adrian Rousseau told the mayor and council that he's heard stories from Laurel youth about incidents with police officers.
"I always try to tell the kids to be respectful to the Police Department and deal with them as an ally rather than a foe, which is hard to do when you hear some of the terrible things that take place," Rousseau said.
Moe said that the complaints are not taken lightly.
"We are a very diverse community, and we need to make sure we are working as one," Moe said. "If there are some bad apples, we are going to take care of those bad apples."
Moe said the city has made complaint forms available at several alternative locations other than the Police Department, including the Laurel Library and City Hall.
Police Chief Richard McLaughlin said any complaint filed will be followed up on "fairly, objectively and impartially."
At the conclusion of the demonstration, Ross presented the City Council with a copy of a letter he said the NAACP sent to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division that requests an investigation of the Laurel Police Department.
"The NAACP is going to stay with the citizens of Laurel to help come to a conclusion to the problem that exists here," Ross said.
Moe said the mayor and City Council are committed to working with the community and the NAACP.
"It's important for us to work together. This won't be done overnight, but we're going to attempt to do it," Moe said.
Internal and criminal investigations
The alleged incident that sparked the NAACP's demonstrations occurred Aug. 5 outside Laurel Station Bar and Grill, and was recorded by a witness on a cell phone video camera. It spurred a $3 million civil suit, and internal and criminal investigations.
The criminal investigation will be presented to the State's Attorney's Office later this week, Moe said.
The internal investigation, which was opened immediately by the Laurel Police Department, is still ongoing.
The officer named in the suit, Pfc. Juan Diaz-Chavarria, is currently on administrative duty until the internal investigation is complete, police officials said.
In the civil suit, the plaintiff, identified as D'Ante Williams, 27, of Cottage City, is seeking a total of $2 million in compensatory damages from both the city and Diaz-Chavarria, and an additional $1 million in punitive damages from Diaz-Chavarria.
Williams is accusing the city and Diaz-Chavarria of violating civil rights, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Moe called Diaz-Chavarria a highly decorated officer and requested that the public allow him due process.
"You and any criminal is allowed due process. The officer is allowed due process," Moe said.