Police, students need to take action after beating

Our view: There is no excuse for Prince George’s County officers’ beating of a University of Maryland undergraduate, but that wrong doesn’t excuse rowdy behavior

April 14, 2010

The Prince George's County Police Department needs to do a lot more than blame three officers for the brutal beating of a University of Maryland student after the Terps men's basketball team's victory over Duke in March. Chief Roberto L. Hylton is right to condemn the officers' actions, which were captured on video; they were completely unjustified, as there is no evidence that the student, John McKenna, had done anything to warrant so much as a rebuke from police, much less physical force. But Mr. Hylton needs to do more than investigate the three officers. Someone else wrote up charging documents against Mr. McKenna and another student that were completely untrue and evidently designed to cover up the real nature of the event, and other officers, including mounted units from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, stood by during the beating.

Furthermore, it is not as if this is the first time that the police department's clashes with students have turned violent, or the first occasion in which Prince George's County law enforcement officials actions have been questioned. In just the last two years, a county SWAT team erroneously raided Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo's house and shot to death his two dogs, and a man accused of killing a Prince George's police officer was strangled to death in his jail cell — a murder in which no witnesses came forward and no one was charged.

The more these incidents pile up, the less trust Prince George's residents will have in those who are supposed to be protecting them, and the more likely it is that situations will get out of hand. Chief Hylton needs to stop insisting that the beating captured on this tape was just a problem with a few officers and not something that must be addressed on a department-wide level.

But University of Maryland students also need to take the occasion to do more than decry the incident as one in a string of alleged cases of police brutality against them. They need to rethink a campus culture that encourages mobs of undergraduates to riot in the streets after they win (or, sometimes, even after they lose) big basketball games. After the Duke victory, students blocked U.S. 1, set trash cans on fire, burned a tree and chanted obscenities in the streets. This is not a charming tradition.

Let us be clear: Mr. McKenna himself appears to have done nothing wrong, and nothing about the rowdiness the students displayed remotely justifies the officers' actions. The police and the police alone are to blame for what was captured on video. But this is no reason to rally in defense of behavior that makes College Park students look like drunken idiots.

The Diamondback, the university's student newspaper, reported last month that alumni were rethinking their donations to the school after hearing about the riots, and that one had started a Facebook group called "I love the Terps and I don't burn things." As of today, it's up to 355 members whose posts indicate a growing embarrassment that their alma mater's reputation is being besmirched by hooligans. One of them noted, "When we blocked Rt. 1 over the bombing of Cambodia, it stood for something. Inhaling tear gas was a badge of honor. When you block Rt. 1 over a basketball game, it's just stupid."

Indeed. By contrast, look at what happened in Durham after Duke won the national championship this year — a considerably more noteworthy accomplishment than the Terps victory in March. According to The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, revelers, including faculty, alumni and administrators, celebrated at a well-controlled bonfire that firefighters put out at 2 a.m. Emergency medical services personnel treated two people for minor cuts in injuries that were not alcohol-related.

The only report of vandalism came from an on-campus bar — some broken furniture, spilled beer, lots of trash — and that was enough to prompt major hand-wringing. One graduate student wrote in a letter to the paper: "What has typically separated Duke from the Marylands of the world is that we celebrate with class. By all means, drink and enjoy yourself. But the moment that enjoyment requires the destruction of property (outside of the planned benches, of course!) is the moment we become no better than the Maryland fans who needed to be tear-gassed by police."

The fact that the Prince George's County police officers were completely wrong in their treatment of Mr. McKenna should not be taken as affirmation by the students that their customary post-game behavior is right. Chief Hylton needs to take this incident as a sign of broader problems in his department, but College Park students need to do some soul searching of their own. There's a Student Government Association election on campus on Monday. The candidates ought to be talking about working with the administration to establish new traditions that are more fitting for a world-class university.

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