Two Laurel families are alleging that they were terrorized by armed and masked Howard County police officers who burst into their homes in the middle of the night and threatened to harm them while making unsuccessful searches for drugs.
The head of the tactical squad that made the search early Friday said officers did not use excessive force or threaten anyone, but police Chief Frederick W. Chaney said the department plans an exhaustive internal investigation.
"We are just hearing one part of it, and it is pretty difficult to respond at this point," Chief Chaney said.
Juanita Thompson of the 9400 block of All Saints Road in Canterbury Riding said she was rousted from her bed at 12:45 a.m. by masked officers who told her to "shut up" and then rounded up her three children at gunpoint.
She said that she and the children, ages 16, 18 and 20, were kept in handcuffs for more than three hours during the search and that at one point an officer threatened to beat up one of her sons if he did not stop talking.
"My kids and I are traumatized, and we are still shaking," said Ms. Thompson, 38, an administrative assistant with an advertising firm. "I thought someone was coming in our house to kill us."
A neighbor, Martin Joseph Cummings Jr., said police burst into his house at 1 a.m. Friday, and he maintains that an officer armed with a rifle entered his bedroom and threatened his life.
"I didn't have my glasses on, and I just saw a dark figure kick my door open, and I thought someone was coming to kill me," said Mr. Cummings, 33, an electrician at anarea hospital. "He never said 'police.' "
He also claimed that an officer put him in headlock, "tried to twist my head around and said, 'Come on and try something. I want to take you out.' "
Mr. Cummings said his wife, Hazel, his sons Jose and Javier, his nephew, a sister-in-law and her 9-year-old daughter were in the house when the incident occurred.
All except the 9-year-old girl were handcuffed during the incident, he said.
Mr. Cummings said he has filed a formal complaint of brutality with the Police Department. Both he and Ms. Thompson said they intend to file civil lawsuits.
Their allegations come on the heels of a report by the state chapter of the NAACP, which said the county Police Department was one of the five worst in Maryland "regarding police brutality and police-citizen relations."
But Sgt. William J. McMahon, the supervisor of the tactical squad who was at the scene of the searches, said yesterday that "there is nothing to the allegations of threats or excessive force."
He acknowledged that the specially trained officers wear something similar to a hooded ski mask, which is designed to protect them from the danger of fire from drug cooking operations and chemicals associated with drugs.
He added that the officers wore dark fatigues with helmets that have the word "police" emblazoned, had police badges on the front of their uniforms and announced "police" when they entered the homes.
"If there is something we did not do right, we will look at all that," Chief Chaney said. "I don't know if they were definitely involved in drugs, but we had enough for a search warrant that was approved by a judge."
Ms. Thompson said none of her four children has had any difficulty with the law. "We never have had drugs in our house," she said. "I don't even allow smoking inside my home."
Mr. Cummings said his 18-year-old son, Jose, was one of several area teen-agers charged recently with conspiracy to distribute counterfeit drugs. But he said his son denies any involvement and was "a victim of circumstance."
He said the police falsely accused his family of running a drug operation and "terrorized our entire family. Because of what happened, I feel pretty embarrassed walking through the neighborhood."
Ms. Thompson, a black single parent, and Mr. Cummings, a white man whose wife and two children are black, both blamed white neighbors for providing information that led to the police raids.
"They unfairly are fingering all the blacks [in the neighborhood] as the problem," Mr. Cummings said.
The Rev. John L. Wright, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, "If the families' charges are correct, then Chief Chaney's job should be on the carpet."
The state NAACP report characterizing the county department as one of the five worst in the state called it "a classic example of a police department running amok. A clear absence of leadership in the department appears to be a contributing factor to its mushrooming police brutality and police-citizen relations problems."
Chief Chaney said the NAACP report "lacks credibility" and is not based on fact.
Chief Chaney said police have received 14 complaints of brutality this year, and while four are pending the department was cleared by internal investigations in the other cases. Last year, there were 15 complaints, and none of them was substantiated.
"I think our department has been unfairly criticized overall," Chief Chaney said. "I believe we have an outstanding reputation for being progressive, and we should not be put down like we are."