Prince George’s Co. police chief voices outrage over video of College Park beating

  • "He's on the ground, and they're beating him. He's not that much of a threat."—University of Maryland student Auston Edwards
"He's on the ground, and they're beating him.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
April 13, 2010|By Scott Calvert and Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

The chief of the Prince George's County Police Department expressed outrage Tuesday over a video showing three police officers beating a University of Maryland student — a clip that spread virally and upset students at the College Park campus who say they are already mistrustful of police.

Flanked by three dozen officers from his command staff, Chief Roberto L. Hylton said he was angered by the beating, which occurred March 3 as more than 1,500 Maryland fans raucously celebrated a basketball win over rival Duke University.

"We're not going to tolerate this inappropriate behavior by any of our employees," Hylton said. "I was very disappointed to see the conduct of the officers on that tape."

But as the video has spread on national television and the Internet, it has elicited accusations that Prince George's County police often overreact during celebrations in College Park. Hylton portrayed the incident as the actions of a few officers and denied that it indicates a department-wide problem. Hylton has suspended one officer and said other officers seen in the video have not yet been identified.

"We have 2,000 employees in the Police Department," Hylton said. "This was just two, three employees. To cast the net against the entire department would be inappropriate at this time."

In the video, 21-year-old student John McKenna can be seen dancing down a sidewalk along a second, unidentified reveler while more than a dozen others mill about the street and sidewalk, many aiming cell phone cameras at police. When the second person stops, McKenna keeps going until he is a few feet from a police officer on horseback.

As two mounted officers approach, McKenna takes a couple of steps back toward a wall. Then three Prince George's County police officers in riot gear rush him, swinging their batons as he staggers and falls to the ground.

The suspended officer wrote a statement of charges claiming that McKenna and another College Park student provoked the police on horseback. But the video appears to contradict that version.

Police are withholding the names of the officer pending the results of the preliminary investigation. A spokesman said he expects the names of the other officers to be released in the coming days.

Hylton first reviewed the tape Monday. He said his staff has worked aggressively to investigate the event, and that several officers at the scene, as well as the victim, are being interviewed. Although he decried the police conduct, Hylton also complained about the behavior of students, who he said set fires and threw rocks and snowballs at officers.

Hylton conceded, though, that that he saw no illegal behavior by McKenna in the video, and said he should not have been arrested. County prosecutors dropped charges against him Monday, according to his attorney, Christopher Griffiths. Charges against a co-defendant and fellow Maryland student, Benjamin C. Donat, 19, were dropped last week. Police had charged the two with felonies on suspicion of assaulting officers on horseback and their mounts. Donat does not appear in the video.

Griffiths released the video to refute perceptions that students were responsible for the riot, according to Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator. Weidenfeld worked on behalf of the attorney and discovered the tape.

Weidenfeld said the students plan to file a civil lawsuit against the Police Department.

"We've had the video for over a month. We were going to use it as part of the defense case," said Weidenfeld, who said she has investigated tips of overzealous officers in the county for years. "There've been other times that students have been" beaten, she said. "We just don't have it on video."

Weidenfeld said she obtained the video from a Maryland student but would not identify the student or say how she got it. A spokesperson for the University of Maryland did not return a message asking for comment.

On campus Tuesday, the video stirred anger among students, though not necessarily surprise. Some said they had heard about county police using excessive force on students and pointed to the video as proof.

"They crossed the line," senior Auston Edwards said of the three county police officers captured on camera. He saw the video Tuesday afternoon when a classmate in his African-American literature class pulled up CNN's Web site on his laptop.

Like other students, Edwards, 22 of Largo, had heard that some officers acted violently toward students in the chaos after the Duke game. But "seeing it's kind of different," he said.

"If they had to handcuff him, then OK," he said. "But he's on the ground, and they're beating him. He's not that much of a threat."

Bridget Hollon, 20, a sophomore from Baltimore, watched the video on the news Monday evening, then discussed it with friends over breakfast Tuesday.

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