Veteran Officer Charged With 4 Counts of Second-Degree Assault

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

A Prince George's County grand jury has indicted a county police officer for allegedly using pepper spray on four young men, one of whom said the officer also kicked him in the ribs and groin.

Two civilians who were not involved in the incident witnessed the encounter, including a minister who called police to report what he saw, according to a law enforcement source and an attorney for one of the alleged victims.

Officer Sheldon Vessels, a 12-year veteran, was on "non-duty" status for medical reasons and was not supposed to be taking police action when the incident occurred March 16. Vessels, a patrol officer assigned to District III, had undergone surgery and been on non-duty status since early January, law enforcement sources said.

On Sept. 14, a county grand jury indicted Vessels on four counts of second-degree assault. The Washington Post reported on the incident after a copy of the indictment was obtained. Vessels is suspended with pay, a police spokeswoman said.

None of the four young men was charged with a crime.

Efforts to reach Vessels were unsuccessful. An officer who answered the phone at District III said questions for Vessels should be directed to the department's public information office.

Cpl. Diane Richardson, a police spokeswoman, said the department does not speak for individual officers.

Percy Alston, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, the union that represents most county officers, said Vessels was confronting the young men in response to a complaint from a business owner. Alston said he did not have further details.

One of the four alleged victims, Nicholas D. Plater, 17, has obtained an attorney and filed a civil lawsuit in Prince George's Circuit Court accusing Vessels of excessive force and of violating his civil rights.

According to Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator on Plater's legal team, the teenager provided this account:

Plater and three friends -- identified in the indictment as Alfonso A. Washington, Delonta Rollerson and Jamal T. Blakeney -- were walking on Route 202 in the Kentland area when Vessels pulled up in a black Escalade sport-utility vehicle.

Vessels got out of the SUV wearing civilian clothes with a photo ID around his neck. He drew a handgun and ordered the four to sit on the curb.

They complied, and Vessels pepper-sprayed Plater in the face. Vessels also kicked Plater in the ribs and groin.

Vessels sprayed each of them one by one, and hit one of them on the head with the pepper spray canister. During the encounter, Vessels swore at the men.

A minister who witnessed the incident called police and provided officers with a statement, according to Weidenfeld and a law enforcement source, who asked not to be identified because the case is pending.

The law enforcement source said police are investigating whether Vessels used a large can of pepper spray, the approximate size of a spray paint can, not the small department-issued canister.

Under department rules, county police officers are not supposed to take police action when they are on non-duty status for medical reasons.

Regarding the question of whether Vessels should have taken police action while on non-duty status for medical reasons, Alston said: "If I've got a broke leg and I'm in my local Giant and a robbery takes place, I'm going to take action. I'm a police officer 24-7, 365 days a year."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company