D.C. police officer sues two Prince George’s officers, saying he was beaten

October 3, 2012

A veteran D.C. police officer is suing two fellow officers in neighboring Prince George’s County, saying they hit him in the face and beat him with a baton in a confrontation outside a Fairmount Heights restaurant and liquor store.

In a suit filed Wednesday in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, D.C. officer Richard A. Merritt claims that he was talking on his cellphone Saturday outside the Ebony Inn when an “overly aggressive” Prince George’s police officer approached him and a group of men. According to the suit, the officer tried to grab Merritt’s phone and pushed him — even after Merritt identified himself as a D.C. police officer.

When Merritt threatened to sue, according to the lawsuit, that officer and another Prince George’s officer hit him in the face, head and body, then beat his legs with a baton. Merritt, a D.C. officer for 23 years who works in patrol in the 4th Police District, said the attack continued after he was handcuffed. He was eventually arrested and charged with resisting arrest, having open containers of alcohol and failing to obey a lawful order, court records show.

“These officers, only word you can say for it is corrupt,” Merritt said.

Christina Cotterman, a Prince George’s police spokeswoman, said investigators were looking into the incident, but preliminarily, they stood by the charges against Merritt. According to police charging documents, Merritt was “moving his hand around his waistband” — where an officer suspected he was carrying a gun — and once on the ground, put his hands underneath his stomach to resist attempts to handcuff him. Merritt also was “in possession of” a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, according to the documents.

The incident began about 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Merritt, 47, said he had just gotten off work and had gone to the Ebony Inn to pick up some ribs. He said that he stopped briefly to socialize with some men, and about the same time, began to talk to his 14-year-old son on the phone. He said that is when a Prince George’s officer approached.

By Merritt’s and the lawsuit’s account, the officer ordered the group of men to stand against a wall and “became more aggressive” when one questioned the directive. Merritt said he identified himself as a D.C. police officer and told the Prince George’s officers he was armed.

At that point, Merritt said, one officer tried to take away his phone, then pushed him. Soon, he said, two Prince George’s officers forced him to the ground, where they punched and kicked him and beat him with a baton.

Although Cotterman declined to address the specifics of Merritt’s account, Prince George’s police charging documents contradict parts of it. The documents say the officers — Jorgaq Shkurti and Harkirat Singh — were on routine patrol when they saw Merritt “in possession of” an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and a clear plastic cup filled with liquor. Merritt would not say whether the liquor was his.

The documents, which are authored and signed by Singh, say Merritt was the only person not to move when police ordered the group to stand against the wall. Singh then saw a bulge in Merritt’s waistband, and he suspected that Merritt might be armed with a handgun, according to the documents. The documents say that at some point, Merritt moved his hand near his waistband.

Singh acknowledges in the documents that he and Shkurti “used a couple of knee strikes and pain compliance technique” on Merritt after they got him on the ground. The documents say that Merritt had put his hands underneath his stomach, resisting the officers’ efforts to handcuff him.

“At that point, I was also mindful of the bulge that I had observed in [Merritt’s] waistband,” Singh wrote in the documents. “I was afraid that the bulge could have been due to a weapon and I was also afraid that [Merritt] was resisting arrest so that he could retrieve his weapon from his waistband and fight back.”

According to the documents, Merritt was carrying his police-issued weapon in a holster, and Singh and Shkurti found his police ID in his wallet after they handcuffed and searched him. They called a supervisor to the scene, who told D.C. police officials what had happened, according to the documents.

Singh and Shkurti are still both on duty in Prince George’s.

Merritt said he has been placed in a non-contact status, meaning he can work but not interact with the public. D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said Wednesday that Merritt’s police powers have been revoked while he is under criminal prosecution.

Merritt said that his ankle was injured in the incident, and on Wednesday, he wore a walking boot on his left leg. His face, however, showed no visible injuries, and Prince George’s police shared pictures with a reporter taken during Merritt’s arrest that also showed no apparent injuries.

Merritt’s lawsuit seeks $3 million, naming the Prince George’s government and the two officers as defendants. Jimmy Bell, his lawyer, said at a news conference with the Prince George’s NAACP president on Wednesday that he worries that the incident is part of a disturbing pattern of officers attacking handcuffed suspects. He cited as an example the recent case of a District Heights police officer shooting a handcuffed suspect in the back as he tried to flee.

“We want the brutality to stop,” Bell said. “It’s not just happening to regular citizens. It’s happening to other officers.”

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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