Last Oct. 9, at about 4 in the afternoon, William C. Davis set out from a friend's house in Suitland, heading east on Marlboro Pike toward the Beltway. Davis a 13-year veteran of the District of Columbia police force, never made it to the Beltway that afternoon.
Instead he had a run-in with a "brother of the badge," Prince George's County police officer Jimmy Hunt, over what Davis thought should have been a routine traffic stop.
After he was pulled over near the intersection of Marlboro Pike and Forrestville Road, Davis, 38, said he was beaten by Jimmy Hunt, then wrongly charged with assulting a police officer and a handgun violation. A county circuit court judge dismissed the handgun charge and the jury acquitted Davis of the assault charges on March 11. Last Monday he filed a $2.6 million civil suit in federal court in Baltimore against Hunt and Price George's County, charging that he was deprived of his civil rights because of the false charges and the assult against him.
Four years ago, almost to the day, a similar confrontation erupted betwen District of Columbia police Lt. John Sarnie and Prince George's officer Larry Reynolds. The assault charges against Sarnie, who was seriously injured in the incident, were dismissed by the judge and he was acquitted of charges of negligent driving and failure to produce a license. He filed a civil suit against the county and initially was awarded $212,000.The amount of the award later was reduced in an out-of-court settlement, and the county dropped its appeal of the decision.
Both Sarnie and Davis have received a number of commendations and both participated in Washington's well-publicized Sting undercover operation in 1976 against burglary and fencing rings. Both cited their good records in their defenses against the charges. In Davis's case, D.C. Police Assistant Chief M.T. Turner, second-ranking officer in the department, testified to Davis's "good character and veracity" in the March trial.
Davis remembers the afternoon and evening of Oct. 9 as a vivid bad dream.
He had been off duty and wearing civilian clothes, after taking his semi-annual qualification test with his police revolver at a Virginia shooting range earlier that day. He carried his wallet and badge in an attache case, but when he left his friend's house, wearing jeans, a black, skin-tight sweater and the revolver at his waist, he had forgotten the case by the door.
"He (Hunt) pulled in behind me," said Davis. "I stopped about 50 feet from the light. He got out of the car and came up to my automobile. He was cordial, didn't give me any indication he was upset about anything. He asked me for some identification. I reached into my pocket and cold tears began to run down. I didn't have my wallet."
Hunt, who had been on the force 15 months at the time of the confrontation, refused to comment on the incident at the time of the criminal trial and did not return a reporter's calls about the civil suit. In the brief statement of charges he filed against Davis last October, however, Hunt said he stopped Davis for driving in an erratic manner and that the front license plate was missing from his car. He said he asked Davis for license and registration and told him about the missing tag. Davis replied that it had fallen off that morning and was in the trunk.
Davis agrees on the facts up to this point, but from here the accounts begin to differ.
Davis said he immediately told Hunt he was a police officer. In the charges he filed against Davis last October, Hunt said he allowed Davis to walk to the truck to get the license plate.
Davis said he also thought his briefcase might be in the trunk. He said he opened the trunk and showed Hunt the tag. Davis recalls: "He said, 'give me some ID.' I said 'I just explained it to you,' and I dropped the tag back in the trunk. He said 'turn around and put your hands back of the trunk of the car,' and I did."
Davis said Hunt then took his revolver, carried it to the cruiser and unloaded it. The D.C. officer said he reminded Hunt of "professional courtesty" between officers, and asked him to check his identity with the District Police Department. But Hunt, Davis said, continued to demand identification.
"I said, 'you're acting like a brandnew rookie.' He looked at me real cold," said Davis. Davis says Hunt then went back to his cruiser and pulled out his police baton. Davis remembers saying to him, "If you can't handle the situation get somebody out here who can."
According to the complaint documents. it was then that the beating began:
"After (Davis) was unable to produce identification, Hunt began to beat (Davis) with a police baton. At some point while beating (Davis) with his baton Hunt lost control of the baton and it fell out of his hand." Hunt, the suit continues, "then took a 'blackjact' from his waist and continued to beat (Davis) with it."
Davis contends that at no time while Hunt was beating him did he strike or attempt to strike Hunt.
Davis was later handcuffed and taken to Price George's General Hospital, where he was treated for severe bruises and a swollen jaw and released. He says he avoided a broken jaw and serious injury because he protected himself with his arms.
The lawsuit filed by Davis also names as a defendant Officer Mark Sorrell, who Davis said arrived on the scene during the alleged beating.
Davis was later charged with assult and battery. In his statement of charges, Hunt said that after he took the gun from Davis:
"I told (Davis) that if he did not show me some identification, I'd place him under arrest for a handgun violation. (He) made no comment. At this point I told (him) he was under arrest for a handgun violation. I then told (him) to lturn around and put his hands on the rear of his vehicle. He said "what?"
Hunt's statement goes on to say that Davis struck him several times as he attempted to place him under arrest.
County police officials and county attorney Robert Ostrom said they could not comment directly on the incident or the resulting suit because they had not yet been officially notified of the action filed Monday.
Ostrom pointed out that the number of legal actions against the county police involving brutality charges has decreased dramatically in recent years. He also said he felt it was "just chance" that the incident involved a Washington policeman.
"We don't have that many cases of that type. Many D.C. officers live in Prince George's County. Over the course of five to six years something like this is bound to happen sooner or later."
The final irony in the case, which county attorneys estimate will not come to trial for several months, is that both officers involved are black. The county police department has been accused of racially motivated brutality against blacks in the past.In the last few years the department has tried to make each new police class half black, to increase black representation on the force. Currently, 99 of the 819 officers are blacks, according to police Capt. E.H. Tippett.
Davis said the force of the blows he received reminded him of the things he had heard about brutality against blacks by white police officers. "If I didn't know he was black, I would have sworn he was a white racist," he said.