Firing of Arundel officer recommended by panel

Police trial board finds neglect of duty in not getting medical aid for man

November 03, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County police trial board recommended yesterday firing an officer for neglecting his duty when he did not seek medical attention for a drunken-driving suspect who died in police custody in December.

The three-member board found Officer Charles R. Atwell II guilty of seven departmental charges, including failing to perform his duty and conduct unbecoming an officer in connection with the death Dec. 15.

Philip A. Montgomery, 20, a Calvert County electrician's apprentice with a history of mental illness, died of antifreeze poisoning in a Southern District holding cell about six hours after Atwell mistakenly arrested him for drunken driving.

The trial board- made up of a lieutenant, a sergeant, and an officer - found Atwell not guilty of four charges relating to his failure to test Montgomery's blood alcohol level. But the most serious charges - which alleged Atwell should have called an ambulance for Montgomery - were upheld.

The board found that Atwell should have sought medical care for the man, who was in and out of consciousness, slurring his words and having trouble walking on his own. Montgomery's mother told Atwell when he was jailed that night that her son had mental illnesses.

Atwell's lawyers argued that the 14-year-veteran of the force, who had also been an officer in Prince George's County and with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police, had no reason to suspect Montgomery was anything but intoxicated and would never have intentionally withheld medical care for someone who needed it.

Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan has 30 days to accept the trial board's recommendation or change the penalty. If the chief upholds the firing, Atwell's lawyers have said they would appeal the decision in Circuit Court.

"This has been nothing more than a cowardly effort by the department's leadership to lay blame upon one of its own rather than stand up for its policies," said lawyer Thomas W. Kinnane.

The policy debated during the four-day hearing does not define what constitutes an ill, injured or unconscious person requiring medical attention.

But Internal Affairs Sgt. Jeff Collins, acting as prosecutor in the case, said it was clear that Montgomery could have been suffering from medical problems, and that he should have been sent to the hospital even if he had just been that intoxicated.

"Anne Arundel County officers have a responsibility to take action when we see someone in the condition Philip Montgomery was in," Collins said.

Atwell was the first of three police officers to appear before the trial board on charges in the Montgomery case.

A sergeant and a lieutenant face similar counts.

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