The Prince George's County government settled a $9.5 million police brutality suit out of court last week by paying $100,000 to the wife of a D.C. fireman who was shot and killed by a former Prince George's police officer.
The suit stemmed from a 1974 incident in which former county police officer William Atkins shot Otis Townsend in the chest in Townsend's bedroom in Forestville. Atkins went inside Townsend's house, according to the suit, minutes after Townsend's wife, Susan, had called an ambulance because her husband had attempted suicide.
When Atkins appeared in the couple's bedroom, he saw Townsend sitting on the bed and his wife sitting next to him. According to the suit, she was holding a gun that she had taken from her husband.
Atkins fired his gun, killing Townsend on the scene.
The police department had maintained that Atkins fired because Townsend was holding the gun and pointing it toward his wife.
Susan Townsend filed the suit against the county after a Prince George's police review board absolved Atkins from wrongdoing in Townsend's death and after a grand jury refused to indict Atkins.
County Attorney Robert Ostrom could not be reached for comment on why the county decided to settle the case.
Stephen Friedman, Susan Townsend's attorney, said he believed the county decided to settle in an attempt to avoid publicity on alleged brutality by its police officers. "It's a story of this county that's never been told," Friedman said. "It's always alleged and suspected of the police department but not proven."
In preparing the lawsuit Friedman requested numerous internal records of the Prince George's police department, which he said would show a pattern of brutality by county officers "never properly investigated by the department." Last year a U.S. judge ordered the county to turn over the material..
Officer Atkins was dismissed from the county police department in 1975 after he was charged with brutality and the false arrest of another man, William Strine of Palmer Park.
Atkins also was the subject of citizen complaints in several other brutality cases, Friedman said.
After leaving the Prince George's police force, Atkins traveled to Africa to fight as a mercenary in the conflict then under way between the white government and black nationalists in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. He was deported from Rhodesia and returned to the United States in 1979.