Feds now lead probe of police beating

By Matt Zapotosky and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 4, 2010; B01

Federal authorities are now leading the investigation into three Prince George's County police officers who were caught on tape beating an unarmed University of Maryland student, and the federal officials made no secret of it this week by descending on the homes of about 40 officers who worked the night of the incident.

Richard Wolf, an FBI spokesman, said that the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had recently assumed management of the investigation into the March 3 beating of student John J. McKenna during a raucous celebration after a basketball victory over Duke. McKenna suffered a concussion and other injuries.

Wolf said federal authorities had been monitoring local prosecutors' work on the case for months but were now taking a more "proactive" role in interviewing potential witnesses.

"We're looking into the circumstances of the incident back in March," he said. "I imagine we're talking to a lot of the officers who were working that night or present that night who would have information about the events."

No one has been charged in the case, though three county police officers - Reginald H. Baker, Anthony J. Cline and James Harrison Jr. - remain suspended or on desk duty while the investigation proceeds, authorities said.

The interviews are not connected to the broad, ongoing federal corruption probe that has already resulted in the arrest of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), Wolf said.

Wolf said investigators were looking into the incident as a civil rights case. The officers could also be charged under state law, although the Prince George's state's attorney's office is deferring to the FBI for now, authorities said.

A police internal affairs probe into the incident has largely been completed, but it has been put on hold at the request of federal authorities and local prosecutors, said Maj. Andrew Ellis, the public affairs commander for the Prince George's department. Ellis said he could not discuss the results of the probe because the case is active.

The Prince George's department had long ago turned over more than 1,300 documents to the U.S. attorney's office, including a list of about 150 officers who were working that night, Ellis said.

Also included were e-mails and text messages of high-ranking police commanders at the scene and more than 40 statements from officers on duty - all of which had initially been gathered by internal affairs detectives, according to two law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.

The FBI also collected footage from several university cameras, sources said.

Wolf said he could not comment on why federal agents were conducting interviews now. He would not say whether charges would be filed or when.

It is also unclear why agents decided to approach the officers after dark and in such large numbers. Sources in the department said they found the step odd because the incident was captured on videotape and widely publicized.

The sources said they could not understand what more the FBI hoped to gain from approaching the officers.

The accuracy of reports filed that night also is under investigation. Police charging documents initially alleged that McKenna and another student, Benjamin C. Donat, jointly assaulted police officers and their horses. The video contradicted that, and the charges against the students were dropped.

The officer who filed those charges, Sean McAleavey, was suspended but quickly returned to duty - and the Prince George's state's attorney's office does not consider him a suspect, according to a law enforcement source familiar with that investigation. It remains unclear whether he is a target of the FBI.

Terrell N. Roberts III, one of McKenna's attorneys, said his client was cooperating with the investigation and was happy with the latest development.

"We're gratified the Civil Rights Division is taking this matter very seriously," he said.

zapotoskym@washpost.com castanedar@washpost.com

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