Almost eight months after the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP protested the treatment of minorities outside the Laurel Police department, the two previously at-odds organizations have once again placed themselves in the public eye.
This time, however, the two groups came together on good terms.
On Thursday, representatives from Laurel Police and the NAACP sat side-by-side inside the Laurel Municipal Center for the official signing of a voluntary mediation agreement, which some say is a big step toward resolving the perceived negative treatment of minority residents.
"I think it certainly is a step in the right direction," said Laurel resident Thomas Matthews, 52, who lives in Laurel's historically black Grove community.
Matthews, who was vocal at the NAACP protests Aug. 20 at the Police Department and Sept. 10 outside City Hall, said he's seen improvements since the peaceful protests, which were sparked by an Aug. 5 incident where a Laurel Police officer was caught on a cellphone camera apparently striking a black man in handcuffs repeatedly outside of Laurel Station Bar and Grill.
"I know the relationship between the (Laurel) Police Department and the Grove community has been at odds because of a lack of trust," Matthews said. "I'm hoping and praying that this agreement will set the standard for the way of treating people."
The non-binding legal agreement, which was brokered by the Community Relations Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has more of a symbolic significance than tangible one.
"This is the signing of the agreement that I think will be helpful to the entire community, and that's what matters here at the end," said Community Relations Division director Grande Lum. "Is the community improved by this? I think it has been, and this agreement is a testament to that."
Representatives from both sides praised the agreement.
"We are very excited about this agreement," said Police Chief Richard McLaughlin. "(It) ensures that there will be open lines of communication, and that there will be more community outreach. ... This is going to be a benefit to the entire community."
Bob Ross, president of the county's NAACP branch, said the agreement is key, but acknowledged improvements still need to be made.
"I'm satisfied with the way we are going and I think the residents are satisfied with the way it's going," Ross said. "The residents are beginning to trust more now than in the past, but it's a work in progress."
A 'living document'
The agreement centers on eight agreed-upon issues, which focus on increasing communication and contact between Laurel Police and the NAACP.
It stipulates Laurel Police contact the NAACP regarding "situations with potential racial implications" no later than 48 hours after the incident occurs, while the NAACP agrees to contact police regarding resident complaints and interaction with the media.
The NAACP will also assist Laurel Police in recruiting minorities from historically black universities and Laurel churches.
In addition to other initiatives aimed at facilitating involvement between police and the minority community, the two organizations also agreed to participate in a Justice Department law enforcement mediation training.
No date for the training has been scheduled.
According to Justice Department Conciliation Specialist Charles Phillips, the department approached the two organizations in September following the highly publicized incident outside Laurel Station Bar and Grill in August, which resulted in a$3 million civil suit filed against Laurel Police officer Pfc. Juan Diaz-Chavarria and the department.
An investigation by the Prince George's County State's Attorney did not result in criminal charges. The civil case is still pending in County Circuit Court, with a trial by date of Dec. 1.
"The incident itself was the impetus for us getting involved," Phillips said. "What kept us involved was the NAACP wanted to have more dialogue with Laurel Police around the issues."
Glenn Brown, the NAACP point person for the mediation, praised the Laurel Police for their voluntary involvement in the mediation.
"I commend them highly for stepping up to the plate," Brown said.
Brown hopes the agreement can be used as a model for other police departments throughout the county and the state.
Latest Laurel Leader
"We find that this concept called community policing works for a while, but then it goes away when a new chief comes aboard or a new mayor or a new political party," Brown said. "If you put something in writing, no matter who takes office, the agreement is here. It becomes a living document."