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Police Routinely Clear Their Own
Prince George's Tolerates Officers Accused of Repeated Abuses

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 2, 2001

Second of four articles

In one 15-month stretch, Prince George's County police officer Francis A. Masino shot an unarmed man, allegedly broke a paraplegic's leg and smashed a driver in the eye with a blackjack. Three other people accused him of misconduct and abuse. One of his relatives warned police, in writing, that Masino was "a madman."

Yet time after time in the 1980s and early 1990s, police officials cleared him of wrongdoing and put him back on the street, where he continued to find trouble.

In 1993, Masino shot and critically wounded an unarmed man outside the Prince George's County Courthouse. Two years later, he opened fire again, seriously wounding an unarmed motorist in Mitchellville. In 1998, a federal jury ordered him to pay $113,000 to a pregnant woman he had attacked in a rage after her dog defecated on his lawn.

Today, Masino is still a Prince George's police officer and has been promoted to corporal. His disciplinary record is spotless -- the shootings, the lawsuits and the complaints all have been wiped clean from his file.

"It's ridiculous that he's still on the force," said Cristi Wineke, the woman who sued Masino and won. "He needs to have his gun taken away, and he needs to go to an anger management class -- for about 10 years."

Masino declined to comment.

Masino's record is not uncommon in Prince George's, where some officers shoot or abuse people repeatedly with little fear of punishment, records show.

One of the most prolific shooters is Cpl. Robert P. Hettenhouser, who since 1993 has been involved in three fatal shootings. All of the victims were unarmed. Records show he has fired his gun at two other people, but missed.

But a look at Hettenhouser's personnel file, obtained by The Washington Post, turns up only three minor infractions during his 12-year career. Combined punishment: $75 in fines and a written reprimand. Police exonerated him after each of his shootings. He declined to comment.

Officer Wayne D. Cheney has killed two people and wounded a third. Police officials said all three shootings were justified. Cheney made headlines in 1993, when he and another officer arrested the son of a judge and shot him to death after he allegedly pulled a gun from his shorts -- while he was handcuffed and sitting inside a police cruiser. Cheney's lawyer said his client would not comment for this article.

Police also cleared Cpl. Charles K. Ramseur after he shot a Salvadoran immigrant in the stomach on June 9, 2000. Authorities acknowledged the man was unarmed and had done nothing wrong. It was the third time Ramseur had shot and wounded someone. He did not respond to letters or phone calls seeking an interview.

From 1990 through 2000, Prince George's police shot and killed the most people, per officer, of the 50 largest police departments in the United States, according to an investigation by The Post. During that period, internal police investigations found that all the shootings were justified.

Records show that the pattern was exacerbated by a number of Prince George's officers who fired their guns at people again and again. In the past 11 years, almost 20 percent of police shootings involved an officer who had killed or wounded someone before.

Police disciplinary records are secret in Prince George's County, which means the public rarely knows if an officer has a history of violent behavior. Police leaders say personnel rules prevent them from divulging any details about an officer's disciplinary record.

"What the officers learn," said Ronald E. Hampton, president of the National Black Police Association, "is there may be a week or two of rough running, but the police department is ultimately not going to do anything."

By examining court files and other sources, The Post was able to review thousands of pages of police disciplinary records. Together, the documents describe a system that tolerates and covers up for officers who are repeatedly accused of unprofessionalism or abuse.

Warned About an Officer

On March 17, 1999, at 9:50 p.m., an anonymous officer dialed the police department's Internal Affairs Division with a tip and a warning. The caller reported that, a few minutes earlier, police had roughed up a Capitol Heights man without provocation, leaving him with a gash above his eye.

The caller also said that the arresting officer, Edward S. Finn, was a good bet to cause even bigger problems.

"This source feels that Finn's actions are going to cause a lot of police officers to get into trouble or fired. Finn needs to be stop[ped]," Sgt. D.S. Deloatch, the internal affairs investigator, wrote in his notes.

"The source said that Finn has two speeds: start and overdrive. His over aggressiveness is what makes a calm situation get out of control."

Finn, 27, a former bartender from Long Island who joined the department in 1996, was familiar to the internal affairs squad. One detective was investigating him for shooting an unarmed man five months before. Another detective recently had charged him with lying.

Now, they added to the list by investigating Finn for excessive force. The anonymous tip led them to the injured Capitol Heights man, Curtis L. Grayton, 31, who said Finn shoved his head against a patrol car because he wouldn't tell the officer his real name.

Finn denied it. He said Grayton resisted arrest and hurt himself when he tried to escape, according to written statements he provided to detectives.

Another officer on the scene, Cpl. Anthony L. Ayers, contradicted several key parts of Finn's story and told investigators that Finn was "very aggressive and hyper. He was seeming to be very agitated."

A civilian review board concluded Finn should be charged with lying because his account "belies common sense," according to a confidential letter sent to police officials.

Two months later, on May 23, 1999, Finn won a promotion and a $2,300 raise -- although he was still under investigation for excessive force, for lying and for shooting the unarmed man.

Police later cleared him in those cases. Before long, he encountered trouble again.

On Sept. 22, 1999, Finn was the first of several officers to respond to an incoherent 911 call placed from an apartment in Suitland. He kicked open the door and arrested 29-year-old Elmer C. Newman Jr., who was staying there and was high on cocaine, according to an autopsy report.

Exactly what happened next -- and why -- is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by Newman's family. But one hour later, Newman collapsed on the floor of a police holding cell and died.

Police said they arrested Newman because he had attacked the officers. They denied using excessive force and said Newman's injuries were self-inflicted.

The state medical examiner found otherwise, concluding that police had fractured two of Newman's ribs, broken two bones in his neck and caused other injuries, according to an autopsy report.

Once again, the internal affairs squad opened an investigation into Finn's conduct.

Once again, he was exonerated.

Three months after Newman's death, Finn received another merit pay raise. This time, police increased his salary by $1,235.

On Aug. 11, 2000, a Forestville woman accused Finn of harassing her family. On Sept. 25, she filed another complaint against him for allegedly threatening her son.

Instead of facing discipline, Finn has won praise from his commanders.

In April, he was presented with a Medal of Valor -- the police department's highest honor -- for a 1999 incident in which police said he wrestled a gun away from a suspect.

Finn declined to comment for this article. "It doesn't matter what I say because it isn't what will end up in the newspaper anyway," he said.

Flagged by the Computer

Every month, a computer in the Prince George's County Police Department churns out a list of potential rogue officers on the force.

The list identifies officers who repeatedly use their weapons, get into physical scrapes or provoke complaints from the public. Police flagged by the computer are put on a special watch list that can result in mandatory counseling or retraining.

Police Chief John S. Farrell touted the program as a model for other agencies. "This is a management tool that gives me a heads-up . . . and allows us to intervene," Farrell said. "It's not perfect, but it does exactly what I want it to do."

But a closer examination of the early-warning system shows that it is full of loopholes that can allow the worst offenders to avoid notice.

The computer produces a monthly list of officers who have had two complaints or forcible arrests in the past 60 days, or three transgressions in the past 90 days. Those officers receive a warning and review the incidents with their commander.

But the computer doesn't count older cases or those spaced more than a month apart. Theoretically, an officer could kill six people in one year and not be flagged.

Moreover, the list of officers who have been flagged is kept secret and is destroyed every month. As a result, police commanders have no way of knowing if the same officers appear on the list again.

In a report issued in February, a task force appointed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry to heal rifts between residents and police recommended that the department monitor officers for 18 months -- not three -- to see if they show a pattern of violent behavior.

So far, the recommendation has been ignored.

Early warning systems have become a favored tool in law enforcement circles as a way to reform agencies hobbled by brutality allegations. Since 1998, they've been adopted by police departments in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and other places under federal investigation for civil rights violations.

But the guidelines for tracking problem officers in those cities are generally much stricter than in Prince George's.

In Miami-Dade, where Farrell was chief of detectives before coming to Prince George's, officers are tracked for at least two years based on citizen complaints, use of force and deadly force.

"There really shouldn't be any limits" on how long the information is retained, said Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska criminologist who has studied such systems.

Court documents reveal the name of one officer who has made the Prince George's list: Edward Finn, the ex-bartender who has been repeatedly accused of misconduct but never punished.

In a deposition for a lawsuit, Finn said he was flagged by the computer soon after he joined the police force. He was vague about the reasons but said he had doused two people with pepper spray and sparked a complaint from a third person.

Instead of receiving a lecture or a warning, however, Finn said his superiors handed him two letters of commendation and told him to keep up the good work.

"No counseling, just praise," Finn said in the deposition.

Shot in the Back

Clifton P. Lyons said he had breakfast on his mind as he strolled down the empty sidewalks along St. Barnabas Road in Temple Hills on Sept. 21, 1996.

The entire commercial strip was deserted about 4 a.m., which is when the 42-year-old Lyons began his daily routine: a long walk, followed by coffee at Howard Johnson's and a Metro train ride to work.

When Lyons heard banging noises coming from a construction trailer, he pulled a cellular phone from his pocket and dialed 911. He whispered the address to the operator, knelt next to some bushes and waited to see what would happen.

Within moments, a Prince George's County police cruiser arrived. Two officers in uniform got out and circled the construction trailer, according to court records and police documents obtained by The Post.

Officer Dwayne W. Stevenson was the first to spot a man dressed in black standing next to the trailer door. "Hold it -- police!" Stevenson yelled. The man fled. Stevenson ran after him.

As the officers closed in, Stevenson suddenly aimed his handgun at the suspect's back and fired three shots, according to Lyons, who said he saw the incident from his hiding spot 25 yards away.

Lyons was appalled. He couldn't believe the officer had shot the unarmed man when he easily could have tackled him.

So Lyons pulled out his cell phone again. "I called back 911 and said, 'You shot the guy in the back. You didn't have to shoot the guy,' " he said. "From what I saw, it certainly wasn't necessary."

When police detectives later interviewed him, Lyons said, they grimaced and rolled their eyes and gave him the impression that Stevenson's career soon would be over.

The man who was shot, Bobby Philip Thomas, 41, of Temple Hills, also assumed Stevenson would be fired. In an interview, he acknowledged running away from police, but said he didn't deserve to be shot.

Thomas was hit once. The bullet struck him underneath his shoulder blade, pierced a lung and passed through his chest, exiting his body under his right nipple.

In a written statement given to detectives, Stevenson said he fired in self-defense after Thomas reached into his waistband and spun around. "Fearing that the suspect had a weapon and that the suspect was about to kill me I discharged my weapon at him," Stevenson wrote.

Physical evidence showed Thomas was unarmed and that he was facing straight ahead when he was shot in the back.

Police exonerated Stevenson. He declined to comment for this article.

Cleared Every Time

Over the next four years, Stevenson faced a stream of complaints and lawsuits.

Each time, the police department concluded that he had done nothing wrong.

On May 16, 1997, Stevenson allegedly beat a Lanham man on the knees and shins with a metal nightstick until his jeans became soaked with blood. Niketa Gardner, 25, said Stevenson also pepper-sprayed him in the eyes and slammed his forehead against a glass door in an unprovoked attack at Landover Mall, according to a pending lawsuit.

A month later, Stevenson began stalking a former girlfriend, following her to restaurants and threatening her on the phone, according to a criminal complaint charging him with harassment. Police placed Stevenson on desk duty but reinstated him two months later when prosecutors dropped the case.

On Dec. 4, 1997, around 9:30 p.m., James T. Isley II, a 27-year-old landscape designer, drove to Temple Hills to buy baby formula for his 3-month-old son. Before returning home, he stopped at an Exxon to fill up his wife's BMW.

As he was standing at the pump, he encountered Stevenson and several other Prince George's police officers. They said he matched the description of a carjacker and asked for his license and registration.

Isley complied. After a radio check, the officers learned he had no criminal record and confirmed that the BMW was, in fact, his wife's. Police still wanted to search him for drugs and guns, however. He protested, but "they just told me to shut up," he said.

Stevenson and the other officers searched his pockets. They tore apart his car, ripping up the seat cushions, but they didn't find any contraband, according to a federal lawsuit that Isley has filed against Stevenson and Prince George's County.

Stevenson then walked Isley around the corner of the gas station and ordered him to strip off all his clothes. The officer poked around his genitals and stuck a finger in his rectum, the lawsuit states.

"I was treated like an animal, basically," Isley said in an interview.

After two hours of fruitless searches, the officers drove off, leaving Isley with a gash on the head, he said. "They told me it was 'procedure,' " he added. "And then they told me I was lucky, that it could have been much worse."

According to Prince George's police regulations, officers are barred from "probing into a person's mouth, nasal passages, ears, anus, genital area or other body part." Strip-searches are allowed in special cases, with a supervisor's approval, only if a suspect already has been arrested.

Angry and humiliated, Isley initially filed a complaint with the police department.

Eighteen months after the strip-search, Capt. Ellis G. Jones, commander of the internal affairs division, responded with a letter. "Unfortunately, these types of incidents involving departmental members do, at times, occur," Jones wrote.

Nonetheless, Jones added, "the investigation of your complaint involving Prince George's County police officers has failed to sufficiently sustain any acts of misconduct on their part."

Meanwhile, Stevenson continued to attract complaints.

On Dec. 20, 1998, he allegedly grabbed a Sears Auto Center mechanic at Landover Mall by the throat and slammed him against a car with such force that the vehicle sustained $1,600 in damage.

Timothy Maddox, now 29, suffered bruises and a hairline fracture in his back. He filed a complaint, saying Stevenson had accosted him after he screeched the car's tires during a test drive in the parking lot.

"He jumped out with his gun and was ready to pull the trigger -- he was that angry," Maddox said.

Two civilian review boards examined the complaint and recommended that Stevenson be punished.

Police officials ignored them.

On July 21, 2000, Virginia State Police charged Stevenson with brandishing a firearm after he allegedly pointed a gun at a motorist in Prince William County and said, "You're about to get smoked," according to court documents.

Prince George's police suspended Stevenson. They reinstated him 30 days later when prosecutors dropped the charge.

Since then, he's been promoted to corporal and given a raise.

Complaints Prove Fruitless

A year ago, during a town meeting at police headquarters in Palmer Park, Police Chief John S. Farrell was peppered with questions about bad officers and what he was doing about them.

"I understand the perception that the police don't do a good job disciplining themselves," Farrell replied. "But I can tell you we do take action against our officers. It may take months, but when cases come before me, I take action. I am a strong disciplinarian."

Police officials refused written requests from The Post to provide statistics on excessive force complaints and how often they are upheld by the department.

But other records show that filing a complaint is usually fruitless.

Officers accused of physically abusing people are almost always exonerated. In 1998 and 1999, internal affairs detectives dismissed every excessive-force complaint that crossed their desks, according to reports from the Prince George's Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, a police review board.

A special commission appointed by then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening in 1989 reported that it was shocked to discover that an internal police tribunal had found only two officers guilty of excessive force in the previous six years. There were 348 complaints filed during the same period.

Another special commission appointed by Curry found similar problems a decade later.

In its February report, the group said the procedures for handling misconduct complaints were "confusing, duplicative . . . ineffective and dysfunctional."

Last summer, Farrell said he had "gotten rid of" 16 officers accused of excessive force since he became chief in September 1995, either through firings or forced retirement. The figure is difficult to verify. Farrell has refused to name the officers, citing personnel privacy rules.

Other records raise questions about his claim, showing that between 1995 and 1999, internal affairs detectives charged only 10 officers with excessive force, according to court documents and reports from the oversight panel.

What happened to those 10 officers is unclear. Police charged with misconduct are allowed to defend themselves before a trial board -- a panel of three fellow officers who sit as judges.

According to police regulations, trial boards are supposed to be open to the public. But police officials do not advertise or post the hearings anywhere. Anyone trying to attend anyway would have to find a way into police headquarters, where the doors are kept locked.

The Post asked for access to Prince George's trial board records under the Maryland Public Information Act. County lawyers denied the request.

Staff writers Jamie Stockwell and Josh White and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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