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FBI probes Pr. George's County police in U-Md. beating

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; B05

The FBI is investigating an incident last month in which three Prince George's County police officers in riot gear used their batons to beat an unarmed University of Maryland student after a basketball game -- an event captured on video and aired nationwide on Tuesday.

"Once the investigation is complete, the civil rights division will review the FBI's findings and will determine whether there was a violation of federal civil rights laws," said Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

FBI Special Agent Rich Wolf, a spokesman for the bureau's Baltimore field office, said agents will review the video and other evidence. The incident occurred March 3, as students took to the streets to celebrate Maryland's victory over Duke.

The FBI probe is the third investigation by authorities into the beating and the criminal charges filed against John J. McKenna, 21, and Benjamin C. Donat, 19. Charging documents filed against the two students are contradicted by the video. Prosecutors have dropped assault charges against both.

The video shows McKenna skipping happily on a sidewalk when he stopped in front of a phalanx of officers on horseback. As he stood there, two Prince George's officers ran and attacked him. A third officer later joined the beating.

The federal probe comes just over a year after the police department emerged from five years of federal oversight that had been implemented for such problems as use of excessive force.

On Monday, State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said he was launching a grand jury investigation of the conduct of the officers who beat McKenna and of Officer Sean McAleavey, who filed the charging documents.

Also Monday, Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said he was "outraged and disappointed" by the conduct of the officers as seen in the video and announced an internal affairs investigation. Hylton said he has suspended one officer but declined to identify him.

Ivey and Hylton announced their investigations after the video was released to local reporters on Monday by Christopher A. Griffiths, the attorney for McKenna and Donat. National news outlets aired the video Tuesday.

Because the officers who beat McKenna were in riot gear, they are not easily identifiable. At a news conference Tuesday, Hylton said internal affairs investigators were working to find out who they are. "There's a sense of urgency about this," Hylton said.

Hylton said internal affairs detectives are talking to various sources, including fellow police officers, to learn the identities. The chief said the investigators plan on interviewing McKenna and Donat.

More than two dozen high-ranking commanders stood behind Hylton outside police headquarters in Palmer Park. Hylton said the commanders joined him to send a message to the community that "unprofessional conduct" won't be tolerated.

Hylton said he first learned of the beating when the video was released.

Asked whether officers who witnessed the incident had a duty to intervene or at least report the use of force, Hylton replied, "They had a duty to tell me there was force used, that's correct."

Based on the video, the chief said, McKenna did nothing wrong and nothing to warrant the beating or criminal charges. However, Hylton said "inappropriate conduct" by other students that night helped lead to the incident.

Hylton said some students threw snowballs and other items at officers, blocked streets and acted in an unruly manner.

The video shows McKenna skipping on Knox Road until he sees mounted officers from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police. The video shows McKenna backing up. As McKenna steps back, two county police officers in riot gear rush him, slam him against a wall and strike him with their batons.

As McKenna crumples to the ground, a third county police officer rushes in and strikes McKenna with his baton, the video shows. Donat is not shown in the video.

The charging documents alleged that McKenna and Donat together assaulted the mounted officers and their horses. The charging documents said injuries suffered by McKenna -- who needed eight staples to close his head wound -- and Donat were caused by horses and not by police.

A spokesman for the Maryland-National Capital Park Police said no officers from that agency were assaulted by McKenna or Donat. The spokesman said no horses injured McKenna or Donat.

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