Prince George's County Officers Suspended After Videotaped Beating

This footage, excerpted from a police videotape, shows two officers pulling over and pepper-spraying an uncooperative motorist during an October traffic stop. The officers have been suspended by the Prince George's County Police Department pending an internal investigation into the incident. Video courtesy Defense Investigator Sharon Weidenfeld
By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Two Prince George's County police officers who are seen on a police videotape beating and pepper-spraying a Latino motorist during an October traffic stop have been suspended from the police force, officials said.

In a statement, Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton announced the suspension of the officers, John Wynkoop and Scott Wilson, pending an internal investigation. Wynkoop and Wilson, who charged the motorist with assaulting them, have been suspended with pay, officials said.

Hylton said he ordered the investigation as soon as the incident was brought to his attention Friday. Much of the encounter was captured by a video camera mounted in Wynkoop's police cruiser. One of the officers also is heard mocking Rodriguez's Spanish accent.

"This investigation will be conducted thoroughly, yet expeditiously," Hylton said in the statement, released Saturday night. "I ask the public to withhold judgment on this incident until the completion of our investigation." He said the probe's findings will be released publicly.

County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), whose district includes many Latino residents, said in a statement that he has confidence in Hylton "and his commitment to having the law enforcement personnel act professionally to protect and serve all citizens in the community regardless of their economic status, color of their skin or language they speak."

Wynkoop and Wilson did not return phone calls to their workplaces last week. Wynkoop did not return a call to his home yesterday.

The traffic stop occurred on Greenbelt Road in College Park shortly after 8 p.m. Oct. 19. In sworn charging documents, Wynkoop said he stopped Rafael A. Rodriguez, 30, a permanent legal resident from El Salvador, for having illegal blue-tinted turn signal lights on his car.

Wynkoop charged Rodriguez with two counts of assault. On Friday, when Rodriguez was to go on trial, a county prosecutor dropped the charges without explanation.

Wynkoop accused Rodriguez of punching him in the stomach with a closed fist. He also alleged that an enraged Rodriguez assaulted him and Wilson even after Wilson pepper-sprayed him.

The videotape, which was subpoenaed by defense attorney Terrell N. Roberts III, shows Rodriguez questioning the citation, saying another officer had told him his lights were legal. A reporter for The Washington Post has viewed the tape.

The tape shows Wynkoop ordering Rodriguez to turn off the car's engine and get out. Rodriguez does not immediately do so, and Wynkoop opens the door and pulls him out. Rodriguez does not punch or attempt to strike either officer on the tape.

Wynkoop slams Rodriguez against the car and handcuffs one of his hands. Suddenly, Wilson pepper-sprays Rodriguez but also hits Wynkoop with the spray, and Wynkoop cries out, "I can't see, dude!"

The three men go out of camera range, then Rodriguez returns and sits down near his car while Wilson stands nearby. Seconds later, Wynkoop returns, grabs Rodriguez by the shoulders and slams him against his car. At that point, Wilson strikes Rodriguez several times in the head with his retractable police baton.

The three men go out of camera range again, and Rodriguez is heard repeatedly crying, "Don't kill me!"

In the moments before the encounter, Wynkoop and Wilson are audiotaped sitting inside the police cruiser. Wynkoop says that when he worked for Metro Transit Police, the chief sent him to "hug-a-thug" classes. After Rodriguez's car was pulled over, but before the physical altercation, one of the officers -- it is not clear which one -- is heard mocking Rodriguez's Spanish accent.

Roberts, Rodriguez's attorney, said he does not have confidence in the county police department's ability to police itself but said he will allow Rodriguez to meet with internal affairs investigators in his presence.

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