On the night of March 3, 2010, University of Maryland students spilled out onto a main street in College Park, Maryland, to celebrate a victory by the school’s basketball team. Prince George’s County police had been primed for the event and waited nearby, dressed in riot gear and ready for action.
John McKenna, a 21-year-old student, skipped up toward a police horse — and then retreated when police ordered him back. Regardless, police rushed him, knocked him down, and savagely beat him with metal truncheons as he lay on the ground. McKenna suffered a concussion and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he received eight stitches for his head wound.
When students protested that the police had viciously attacked McKenna and another student without charge, the P.G. police responded by charging McKenna with assaulting police officers. He could have been faced several years in prison if convicted.
McKenna’s parents hired a lawyer who placed advertisements in a student newspaper that produced responses revealing the existence of videos made by cell phones showing that the police had attacked the students without provocation. As a Washington Post editorial noted, “The officers [who attacked McKenna] didn’t file a report, as required, on their use of force. When initially questioned about the beating, they lied. And when they filled out the initial paperwork on the incident, police said Mr. McKenna had sustained his injuries, including a concussion, from being kicked by a police horse.”
Prince George’s police stonewalled a prosecutorial investigation of the attack, but the case eventually went to trial. One police officer was convicted of second-degree assault. But justice never got any further than the jury’s ruling. The Washington Post summarized the subsequent verdict: “Although he faced up to 10 years in prison for the second-degree assault, and prosecutors asked for six months of prison time, Judge Beverly J. Woodard gave Mr. Harrison little more than a slap on the wrist: 30 days of home detention, followed by 18 months of unsupervised probation.”
If private citizens had assaulted a police officer and battered him as he lay on the ground — as the police did to McKenna — the citizens probably would have been sent to prison for at least a decade. But when police do the same thing, home detention is the proper punishment.
Many citizens were appalled by both the prosecution’s request for a lenient sentence and the judge’s decision to save the culprit from any jail time. The trial had been interrupted after attorneys learned that Judge Woodard’s “ex-husband was a former Prince George’s police officer who had been convicted in an excessive-force case before he and the judge were married,” the Post reported. An NBC News story noted, “According to a source close to the lawyers in the case, Judge Beverly Woodard decided she felt the prior relationship did not indicate a bias and that the trial could continue.” When judges are permitted to certify their own virtue, only a fool would expect justice.
Woodward had obliged the police by dismissing the most serious charge — first-degree assault — because the prosecutors had not shown that the cops had inflicted “serious and permanent injuries” on McKenna. But there was nothing in Maryland law to require permanent injuries for a vicious attack to be considered a first-degree assault.
The Post noted that the courtroom had been full of uniformed police for the trial. But a large number of P.G. police officers had been involved in the initial coverup of the assault. Many police officers on the scene had clearly seen that the student was the victim. Yet they never dissented from the attempt to tar the student and prosecute him — until the video partially broke the “blue wall of silence.”
Prince George’s County is practically Police Abuse Central in America. P.G. police are renowned for shooting innocent people, covering up their killings, and walking away scot-free.
During the 1990s, the P.G. police killed and maimed more unarmed people than the Unabomber and the Aryan Nation combined. A 2001 Washington Post series noted, “Since 1990, Prince George’s police have shot 122 people, killing 47 of them. Almost half of those shot were unarmed, and many had committed no crime.”
Among the shootings the police department ruled as justified: “An unarmed construction worker was shot in the back after he was detained in a fast-food restaurant. An unarmed suspect died in a fusillade of 66 bullets as he tried to flee in a car from police. A homeless man was shot when police mistook his portable radio for a gun. And an unarmed man was killed after he pulled off the road to relieve himself.”
“No one knows how many people have died while in the custody of Prince George’s officers,” the Post noted. “Police said they don’t keep track of such deaths. By examining autopsy reports and other documents, however, the Post was able to identify 12 people who have died in police custody since 1990.” At least one suspect died after being severely beaten while wearing handcuffs. Medical examiners have ruled two of the deaths in police custody to have been homicides — yet the department did not discipline a single officer in an in-custody death. More recently, a man accused of killing a Prince George’s policeman was murdered in the county jail. Police and jail guards kept their mouths shut, and prosecutors gave up on even attempting to charge anyone with breaking the detainee’s neck.
The system of justice is both scrupulous and idealistic when it comes to respecting the rights of killer cops. Police are protected by the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights” — a Maryland law (similar to laws in many other states) that prohibits the questioning of a police officer for 10 days after any incident in which he used deadly force. In Prince George’s County, there is no greater offense than prematurely asking a cop why he gunned down a citizen. The Post noted that “a lawyer or a police union official is always summoned to the scene of a shooting to make sure no one speaks to the officer who pulled the trigger.”
The recent wrist slap for Prince George’s police received far too little coverage. But it does highlight how modern technology is permitting citizens to at least partially resist government abuses. Unfortunately, because police officers are almost never prosecuted for perjury, the impact of cell-phone video footage is far less than it could be.
In May the Justice Department called on local governments to recognize citizens’ constitutional right to video police.
Some police departments have responded to the new technology by vigorously prosecuting anyone who records police in public spaces. As usual, Maryland is in the forefront of police abuses. A New York Times editorial noted that the Baltimore “Police Department issued an order [in November 2011] paying lip service to the right of citizens to make ‘video recording of police activity.’ But the day after that order became public, as The Baltimore Sun reported, police officers were caught on video threatening to arrest for loitering a man who was recording them as they surrounded and held someone on the ground.” The Baltimore police continued using the loitering threat against citizens who video them long after the new policy was announced.
In one of the rare bright spots for civil liberties in recent years, the Justice Department’s civil-rights division issued a statement in May calling on local governments to recognize citizens’ constitutional right to video police:
Because recording police officers in the public discharge of their duties is protected by the First Amendment, policies should prohibit interference with recording of police activities except in narrowly circumscribed situations. More particularly, policies should instruct officers that, except under limited circumstances, officers must not search or seize a camera or recording device without a warrant. In addition, policies should prohibit more subtle actions that may nonetheless infringe upon individuals’ First Amendment rights. Officers should be advised not to threaten, intimidate, or otherwise discourage an individual from recording police officer enforcement activities or intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices. Policies should prohibit officers from destroying recording devices or cameras and deleting recordings or photographs under any circumstances.
The Justice Department also stressed that the right to video extends to citizens in general — not just to journalists.
Unfortunately, in the same way that it is nearly impossible in some places to prevent police from killing innocent people or to punish them when they do, it will be difficult to prevent police from violating the law to destroy the evidence of their abuses. But the Justice Department standard at least will provide a remedy for citizens who find themselves railroaded by local prosecutors for exercising their constitutional rights.
In the long run, there is no substitute for vastly decreasing the sway of police over private citizens. As long as the statute books have endless pretexts for police harassment — from seat-belt laws to marijuana prohibitions — citizens will be at grave peril of being victimized by their supposed protectors. More important, Americans need to take a wiser attitude toward government. Only when citizens recognize the political-legal monsters that Leviathan has created will they summon the courage to slash government power across the board.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.