A 39-year-old Silver Spring man has filed a federal lawsuit against several Montgomery County police officers, alleging that they violated his civil rights during a 1996 arrest.
Merlin "Skippy" Williams alleges that on the night of July 30, 1996, he was punched, kicked and scratched by the officers, who were summoned to his home in the 1100 block of Good Hope Drive for what 911 dispatchers said was a domestic disturbance.
In the suit, filed July 30 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Williams said that during a bad reaction to cocaine, he began having trouble breathing and so frantically ran through the house gasping for air and yelling for his wife, Catherine, to help him.
A police officer responding to a 911 hang-up call from the Williamses' 9-year-old son told investigators that she found the door to the home open and Williams with one arm around his wife's neck and the other behind his back. After Williams refused to release his wife, the officer drew her gun and called for help. Seven more officers arrived. The suit names five officers and alleges that "several unknown officers" were involved.
The suit alleges that Catherine Williams put herself in front of her husband to shield him from the drawn gun, then grabbed his hand to help him follow the officers' orders.
Williams lowered himself to his knees, the suit claims, and an officer put a gun to his head and told him, "I'll blow your [expletive] head off." The suit claims that an officer beat Williams with a flashlight, which broke in half, and that Williams was sprayed with chemical mace.
The other officers, the suit alleges, wrestled Williams into the front yard and slammed his face against a brick wall. He lost consciousness, was hospitalized at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital for 11 days and suffered kidney failure, the suit claims. Williams was charged with six counts of battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Catherine Williams declined to press charges against her husband and told police that the family had no history of abuse. But then-Police Chief Carol A. Mehrling said police had responded to domestic abuse calls at the Williams home six times in 1994. Williams had spent a year in jail for a previous drug conviction.
Assistant County Attorney Brian Kimp said he had just received the case last week and had yet to thoroughly investigate it.
"From what I can see, I don't think the officers did anything wrong," said Kimp, who will meet with all five officers next week.
Phone calls made to Timothy L. Fitts, Williams's attorney in Baltimore, were not returned.
Williams is black. Five of the eight officers who responded the night of his arrest are white. His suit is the latest police brutality case filed against the Montgomery County police department in recent years and comes at a time of friction between the department and minority communities.
Under a civil settlement reached Aug. 6, the county agreed to pay $2 million to the family of Junious W. Roberts, 44, a Wheaton man who was accidentally shot to death by a police officer in April. In the weeks after the shooting, a jury cleared the officer, Sean Thielke, 30, of criminal wrongdoing.
Leroy Warren, chairman of the NAACP's national criminal justice committee, called Williams's suit "another example of a lack of control of the police department" in which officers "act like the KGB."
The NAACP's Montgomery County branch has tracked cases of alleged police brutality and harassment and has provided the U.S. Justice Department with more than 300 cases to review, said chapter President Linda M. Plummer. The Justice Department is expected to deliver its findings after a three-year review of such cases any day now.
Walter Bader, head of the county's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, described the $2 million Roberts settlement as fair but said its amount will inevitably trigger a rise in suits against the department. Williams is seeking $3.5 million.
"Civil rights can be expected," he said. "It's when the county overcompensates or pays off claims that have no merit that makes police officers very cynical, and they should be."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.