Beating, coverup give black eyes to Prince George's police.

Friday, April 16, 2010

AS IT WAS presented in court documents filed by the Prince George's County police, the incident in College Park on the night of March 3 was mainly a scuffle between man (or rather two men) and horse (or rather a pair of police horses), with police playing little more than a cameo role. Men struck horses; horses retaliated by kicking men; police stepped in and made arrests -- that's more or less the official story.

Here's the reality: A University of Maryland student, John J. McKenna, was dancing down the street to celebrate a basketball victory by the Terrapins when he encountered riot police who, without apparent provocation, beat him savagely with their nightsticks. A video of the incident establishes the guilt of the police without a sliver of doubt. As for Mr. McKenna, who sustained extensive bruises and a concussion, he was as innocent as the horses. Not only did he not act aggressively, he was backing away when officers in riot gear rushed him, slammed him against a wall and then beat him.

This incident is disturbing in several ways. First, it makes a mockery of any claim of credibility by the Prince George's police -- and no, it's not just a case of a few bad apples. There were plenty of witnesses to the beating, including at least a dozen uniformed officers from the police department and other law enforcement agencies. Any of them could have reported the incident at the time for what it was: a clear case of sickening police brutality.

Instead, it was not until the video surfaced this week that Prince George's Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton learned of it, he said, adding that he was "outraged and disappointed." Why wasn't he "outraged and disappointed" that his own police had not come forward earlier to report the incident? After all, media reports at the time included eyewitness accounts of excessive police violence. Wasn't it Chief Hylton's responsibility to investigate those allegations? The unavoidable conclusion is that had there been no video, the conspiracy of police silence and coverup would have succeeded.

And why did the video turn up? One reason is that Mr. McKenna's family had the savvy and means to hire a private investigator who was able to find it. (Mr. McKenna's grandfather is a retired Maryland circuit judge.) Pity those less fortunate regular Joes who lack the knowledge and ability to contest the official police version of events.

Four officers have been suspended in connection with the March 3 beating, including the one who wrote up the fictitious charging document, and the police chief said further suspensions may follow. That's laudable. The officers who beat Mr. McKenna should be fired and prosecuted, and it seems to us that other officers, including those in command at the scene and others who saw the beating and said nothing for weeks, should also face disciplinary action. They are a disgrace to the force, which had only recently started to rehabilitate its brutality-tarnished reputation after six years of federal oversight ended last year.

Finally, the University of Maryland's responsibility, or rather abdication of it, should not go unmentioned. Despite ample experience with past sports-related unrest, neither university authorities nor student leaders have devised an effective way of preventing drunk and unruly students from spilling off campus to menace traffic and destroy property in College Park. In the past, students have rejected university suggestions of rallies and concerts as lacking spontaneity, and the university has issued mild condemnations of students without actually disciplining very many of them. Maryland has made strides toward joining the ranks of top-drawer public universities; it's time it started acting like one.

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