One week after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Hyattsville City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for policies that defend black life and undo the effects of systemic racism. Hyattsville City Council is no stranger to these discussions of racial equity, policing and justice.
For the past several months, the city police department and city officials have been criticized for its handling of a half-hour standoff that ended with a line of city and county police gunning down Leonard Shand as he lunged toward police near the Mall at Prince George’s. The ACLU said the shooting reflected a history of aggressive policing of minorities and said the police department created circumstances that all but guaranteed a fatal outcome. An investigation into Shand’s September 2019 death, conducted by the Prince George’s County Police Department, remains apparently incomplete.
Most recently, activists have criticized a decision, said to be necessary because of staffing concerns, to re-activate several of the officers who opened fire that day. The re-activation spurred these activists, organized under the name Community Justice, to stage at least two drive-through protests targeting Hyattsville City Hall, and engaged in a letter writing campaign protesting the move during virtual public comment periods in Council meetings.
When police shot and killed Shand, a black man described by police as experiencing homelessness and some kind of still-unspecified and unverified mental or emotional distress during his final moments, they ignited a local debate touching on issues at the intersection of race, class, mental health care and policing. All of those issues are heavily framed by America’s brutal history of systemic racism. So, how do Hyattsville city officials contextualize Shand’s death in light of the resolution calling for proactive policies to undo the effects of systemic racism and the outrage over Floyd?
“That is a hard question,” said Mayor Candace Hollingsworth in an interview after Hyattsville City Council’s June 1 meeting. Hollingsworth introduced the resolution, which detailed in its preface America’s history of enslavement and discrimination against black people. “Those questions are hard for anybody in elected office because you almost always – and inevitably so – have situations where your governing may conflict with your personal beliefs.”
Hollingsworth said the city has both a history racism and racist systems, and also now has progressive policies and diverse leadership more reflective of the community today than perhaps ever before. During the meeting, Hollingsworth, who is herself black, noted six of the 11 current City Council members are also black. She also noted the division previously caused by proposals to extend municipal voting rights to all city residents, regardless of immigration status. Hollingsworth said it was notable that City Council now, only a few years removed from that debate, unanimously supported a resolution explicitly protecting black lives.
“I think all of that has to be taken in totality and as an elected official, none of those things, – passing a resolution or any law for that matter – it doesn’t correct for anything that has happened in the past, but it does set the stage for where you go in the future,” said Hollingsworth after the meeting. “In the same way that things that happened in the past don’t have to be the things that determine your trajectory, we all have to remember there is room, for everybody, to have space for growth and a space for grace.”
Councilor Kevin Ward, in a brief interview after Hyattsville’s June 1, 2020, City Council meeting, declined to comment in depth when asked if Floyd’s death made him reconsider the events surrounding Shand’s final moments.
“They have not,” said Ward. “Well, that’s not my correct response. My correct response is, I have no comment because I don’t think they are the same.”
Councilor Robert Croslin also declined to comment in detail about Shand.
“I am not going to talk about that incident with you,” said Croslin.
But Croslin did highlight the work the city has done to address the history and effects of systemic racism, such as the city’s race and equity task force committee, its support of research into the history of Jim Crow segregation in the city and segregationist clauses baked into many of the property records in the city and its exploration of ways to remove segregationist property deed clauses underlying large portions of Magruder Park.
“There has always been ongoing work in this city with city agencies to work against racism,” said Croslin. “You criticize injustice where you see it. I think that’s the responsibility of everyone.”
Councilor Edouard Haba said his position on the events surrounding Leonard Shand’s death has not changed.
“I was in favor of placing those officers under administrative leave until those investigations are over and completed,” said Haba. “I still do believe those officers who are implicated in the Shand death in the city should still be put on administrative leave.”
Haba, somewhat obliquely, has hinted at his disapproval of the move to re-instate the city officers before, saying the decision was not made by City Council. Speaking with Route 1 Reporter, he said the decision might not have been approved in Council had a say.
Haba said that while there are differences between the circumstances surrounding Shand’s death and Floyd’s, both ultimately deal with the same issue, and both need to be viewed with the nuance specific to those circumstances.
“An innocent man lost his life because of police intervention,” said Haba. “Was the intervention appropriate? Was the intervention inappropriate? Until we have the answers, we should take all precautions to address them accordingly.”
Councilor Joseph Solomon, perhaps the most-outspoken city official regarding Shand’s shooting, said his death weighs heavy.
“The Shand incident has never left my mind. It has been a constant conversation I’ve had with our police chief and city administrator on the appropriate methods forward,” said Solomon. “I think there is more to come on that discussion, probably sooner rather than later.”
Route 1 Reporter is a subscriber-supported local news website. However, in the service of the public discourse, coverage relating to Leonard Shand’s death is being kept outside of the paywall.