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Q&A: Prince George’s police chief on kids, community trust and crime

Malik Aziz, who has led the county’s police department since 2021, sat down with Washington Post reporters to talk about public safety

Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz speaks at an event about gun violence, in Marlow Heights on Nov. 11. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
10 min

When Prince George’s County police chief Malik Aziz took over in 2021, he inherited a department facing nationwide attention after an officer fatally shot a handcuffed man, a lawsuit alleged systemic racial discrimination in how it hired and promoted officers, and a loss of confidence from the local NAACP in county law enforcement leadership.

Brought in from Dallas to reform the department in the wake of racial justice protests over policing, he’s had to both earn the trust of the community that demands greater officer accountability while also facing an unnerving spike in violence since the pandemic.

In an interview with The Washington Post before the new year started, Aziz pointed to a number of concerns from his officers: a crisis of mental health in the community, a spike in domestic-related homicides and an alarming quickness to reach for guns to resolve conflict. Some of the most high-profile killings this year exemplify those trends: a funeral company owner was charged in a fatal shooting at a burial, a mother and daughter were accused of dismembering and grilling the grandmother of the family, and a 16-year-old student was shot and killed feet away from her high school.

“I’ve stopped looking at things as a total police response,” Aziz said. “We start looking at things as an environmental response with multidisciplinary teams that seek to work with each other and work with families and work with individuals who want to be worked with for a better environment.”

County police investigated a total of 117 homicides in 2023, up slightly from 103 in 2022, according to department data. That number is still lower than the 136 homicides Prince George’s saw in 2021, the year after the pandemic disrupted a decades-long downward trend in violent crime. In neighboring D.C., homicides have kept climbing since 2021 — with 274 in 2023, the deadliest year in more than two decades. Homicide closure rates in Prince George’s are at 62 percent, year-specific, meaning 6 out of 10 homicides are closed, as of early December. That number is down from 72 percent, year-specific, in 2019, according to county police data.

There were 11 children killed in homicides in 2023, up from seven killed in 2022 but the same number as in 2021. Eight juveniles were arrested in homicides last year, down from 10 in 2022 and 14 in 2021. For the third year in a row, youths outpaced adults in carjacking arrests — 2023 tallied 124 juveniles arrested compared to 58 adults.

In this interview, edited for clarity and length, the chief addressed homicides, youth violence and more.

Q: What can you tell us about homicides in the county?

A: The suspects that we arrested [in] 2023 homicides, or we identified: 44 of those people had prior gun arrests. At least 47 [homicide suspects] knew[the] victim in some capacity. I think there’s so much connectivity dealing with violence in some of our neighborhoods from people who know each other, who have some grievance with each other; family members ... are getting involved in disputes and handling it with a weapon.

Q: Why have homicide numbers steadied in Prince George’s compared to neighboring D.C.?

A: I hate to try to compare our jurisdictions since we’re so different. With D.C. and Montgomery County and Fairfax and places that make up the DMV, [there are] some areas that parallel our county, ... that kind of mirror each other. Looking at things that have happened this year, I think we need to get a hold of domestic violence homicides and [try] to be an interrupter or [intervene] in some different kind of way than what normal policing is and [use] our other departments and other agencies to get into that. That has probably been the biggest issue.

Q: Historically, domestic violence prevention has been a huge project of the county. What do you think may be contributing to these higher rates of domestic homicides? Is there anything that you can give us from what the data shows? Are gun crimes being prosecuted in the way that you would want them to be?

A: It would seem that the love affair that Americans are having with weapons and our quick reaction to handle conflict resolution with weaponry has shown to have dire consequences, not just in Prince George’s County, but in this region and across the United States and many of our American cities. People love guns, they’re using guns, they’re carrying guns, they’re shooting guns. There’s less talk and more action with a weapon. This is the environment that we are existing in right now. Overall, it is really a person’s choice, negative choice I might add, wrong choice, to commit a violent act such as a homicide against a family member, a partner, a spouse, or whatever the name is, and it’s a domestic situation. Ultimately, the person who is holding that weapon is responsible for using it responsibly.

Q: It seems like mental health has been a huge factor. What are your thoughts on mental health resources?

A: We need more clinicians available to the general public as the stigma is removed from mental health. In a lot of cases, [there is a] temporary or permanent mental health crisis [that] juveniles are dealing with. ... That is very difficult for the police to solve alone. I welcome our health department partners, our mental health partners, all of those across nongovernmental organizations, to try to reach a partnership to deal with these issues before the police arrive. And at younger ages — I’m talking 10, 11, 12 years old — many are dealing with trauma, undiagnosed trauma, unrecognized trauma. They’re going through teens, and then entering into adulthood in untreated environments. That right there has posed the biggest problem to us. The police are dealing with this in the moment, so you have a pre-point that you need to deal with and then you have a post-point. ... They need a real professional. We’ve talked about it. Especially in the last 10 to 12 years, we really have paid a lot more attention to it. And we have changed in policies, we’ve changed in procedures and how we address it. But that is not enough, when we’re front-facing public organizations. That is very difficult.

Q: What are your thoughts on juvenile crime?

A: We had some dips in the summer; crime went down. We’ve been addressing juvenile crime. What we see, though, is the consistent escalation. In 2023 we had eight juveniles who we believe committed a homicide. For the third year in a row, we’ve arrested more juveniles for carjackings than adults. ... They’re taking someone’s vehicle by force with a weapon, displaying that weapon in that manner to make them have a belief they will be shot and possibly killed if they don’t give up their vehicle. ... We had at least 88 juvenile arrests for gun possession and at least 21 of those had unserialized weapons, a.k.a. “ghost guns.” ... Eighty-eight young people carrying a weapon: That means 88 young people have the potential to commit a violent crime. ... There have been 11 of our juveniles killed in homicides. It should ring the alarm for everyone. And I think it is; it’s just that we haven’t figured out a proper solution to it — around the nation, not just in Prince George’s County.

Q: Why are homicide clearance rates lower than past years?

A: Even though we think that those numbers are dipping, or they’re low, in the grand scheme of bringing closure to families, 6 in 10, 7 in 10 and 8 in 10 are very, very good numbers, even though we’ve become so disappointed because we want to resolve 10 out of 10. There’s so many reasons why, but I can tell you right now, there’s a lot of crime that goes on, and even in homicides, that people know. They know who did it, and they don’t talk to us. They don’t tell us. That is, to me, the biggest factor. People see things, but they don’t “see” things. There’s a stigma still attached to cooperating with the police, even though they should be looking at it as cooperating with a community that wants to live in peace: that no one wants to live in a community that’s under fire, that are victims of crime and homicides and carjackings. People see it, and yet, we don’t get a lot of meaningful intelligence when it comes to these things. We have CrimeSolvers. You can be anonymous. We give out information: We developed community policing where you can talk to officers without having to be exposed when giving information out. The greatest thing that has to be eradicated for our neighborhoods to thrive is to stop giving an assist and a hand to criminals to further victimize our neighborhoods.

Q: Is there anything you want to say to the community in this moment where a lot of wounds are being revisited here with the acquittal of Michael Owen Jr., the police officer who was charged with murder in the fatal shooting of William Green?

A: I believe, in the last two years and seven months that I’ve been here in Prince George’s County, I think that we have worked collectively, internally and externally with our community, to build and rebuild trust in a real procedural justice kind of way — a way that brings fairness and equity and trust back to the police department. I know so because this is what the community at large has told me. I realize that in any community there are going to be people who will never be satisfied with a response for law enforcement, and as equally as that, there are people on far-reaching sides that will support the police, no matter what. But in the middle, the middle group who are balanced — they have an understanding of the need for police and what the police should do, and how we should carry out our jobs. They have relayed to me that they support the police. We have had surveys of overwhelming [percentages] of 80, 90 percent of our public supporting us. Those reforms were very real for us. The recommendations from the police reform work group — we implemented those and we keep a running tab. Are we where we want to be or desire to be? No, we are not satisfied with that. But, we’re putting one foot in front of the other and we’re moving forward with those reforms. We’ve embraced 21st-century policing pillars and those principles. We have met with activists in our community and we have heard some of their concerns, and we have delivered to them the kind of response that warrants them to say they trust us, they work with us and they call on us. We are moving forward. ... We are challenging the very policies that are in front of us every single day to make sure that we are on the right footing. We have some road to go, we’re not finished yet. But definitely we’re a better police department.