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National Perspective | JUSTICE

Latest Police Shooting Shines a Harsh Spotlight on County

September 14, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As a personal trainer at a suburban Washington gym and a health food fanatic, Prince Jones led such a disciplined lifestyle that friends called him "white toast."

It was a fond taunt for a mild 25-year-old black man whose life was about to broaden with his upcoming marriage and enlistment in the Navy. But Jones' prospects came to an end this month when he was shot dead in a spray of bullets during an early morning encounter with an undercover policeman.

The death of Jones--who was shot six times in the back after he was tailed from Washington into Virginia--is the latest in a yearlong string of fatal confrontations between police and citizens in Prince George's County, a Maryland community once home to Southern-style tobacco plantations and now the nation's fastest-growing black suburban enclave.

Prince George's police have shot 12 county residents in the last 13 months, killing five. Two others have died in police custody--a record critics contend is a clinging vestige of racism. The incidents have focused the same harsh light on the county's police that similar episodes have in other American communities where officers and minorities repeatedly have tangled.

"You've got systematic brutality," said Gregory Lattimer, an attorney for the dead man's family, "that is being swept under the rug because the powers that be don't want it in the public eye."

But because many of those involved in the Jones slaying are African American, race has not had the same incendiary effect that it did in New York last year after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo or in Los Angeles in 1991 after the beating of Rodney G. King by LAPD officers.

Carlton Jones, 32, the officer who shot Prince Jones, is black. He is now under investigation by authorities in Fairfax County, Va. Wayne K. Curry, the top elected official in Prince George's County, also is African American--as are many ranking county police and public safety officials.

The lack of a galvanizing racial component so far has muted public outrage. On Wednesday, Ted J. Williams, another lawyer for Prince Jones, pleaded with citizens to pressure officials in Fairfax County to turn the matter over to a grand jury instead of leaving it to the county's attorney. And despite interest by New York activist Al Sharpton, the only protest so far occurred in neighboring Washington--where 1,000 students marched last week on the campus of black-run Howard University. Both Prince Jones and Carlton Jones took classes there.

"It's an unfortunate set of circumstances, but not along racial lines," said Fred Thomas, Prince George's County's public safety director and a former Washington police chief.

The police department he runs, like the county's population, has changed dramatically in recent years. In three decades, the black population has burgeoned from 12% to a 60% majority. And the once all-white police force--long feared and hated by local blacks--is now 45% minority officers.

Pockets of resistance among white officers have made the transformation a rocky one, Thomas concedes. "There are some holdouts, but we're making progress," he said, pointing to new training and minority-awareness programs and a 25-member task force investigating police conduct.

The progress is scant consolation to relatives and friends of Prince Jones. They seethe at reports that he was tailed because he was seen leaving a Washington house where someone else was sought for stealing a gun from police.

Carlton Jones' lawyer, Michael T. Leibig, said his client was forced to fire at Prince Jones because the younger man rammed the officer's undercover car three times with his Jeep after he had been ordered out of the vehicle. "[Carlton Jones] was placed in an untenable situation," Leibig said. "He had no choice but to use his gun." The weapon was fired 16 times, police reports said.

Prince Jones' mother, Mable Jones, a Philadelphia radiologist, shook with anger Wednesday that her son was killed "because he rammed a car." She wondered aloud whether her son "reacted in fear" and might have tried to ram the other car because he worried the officer--his hair in dreadlocks and driving an unmarked car--was a dangerous impostor.

"If he knew he was being followed by a police officer, I'm sure he would cooperate," she said, still talking of her son in the present tense. "He's a very gentle young man and very respectful."

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