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Maryland officer to serve year in jail for arrest that paralyzed man

Bryant Strong, a Prince George’s County police officer, was convicted in May of assault and misconduct in office for his actions during a traffic stop in 2019 that left Demonte Ward-Blake paralyzed from the neck down.

Attorneys William “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Malcolm P. Ruff and the family of Demonte Ward-Blake hold a news conference in Largo, Md., on Feb. 21. Prince George’s County police officer Bryant Strong on July 21 was sentenced to one year in jail and three years of probation for his actions during a 2019 traffic stop that left Ward-Blake paralyzed. (Keith Alexander/The Washington Post)
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Prince George’s County police officer Bryant Strong was sentenced Thursday to one year in jail followed by three years of probation for his actions during a traffic stop in 2019 that left Demonte Ward-Blake paralyzed from the neck down.

Strong, 29, was found guilty in May of second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment — all misdemeanors — during a bench trial before Circuit Court Judge DaNeeka V. Cotton.

At Strong’s sentencing hearing Thursday, the courtroom was packed with about 50 people, many of them police employees there to support him. Three Prince George’s officers who had worked alongside Strong and developed friendships with him over the years spoke on his behalf, saying he is collegial, has a strong work ethic and is dedicated to his family and young son.

Maryland officer guilty of assault, misconduct in arrest that paralyzed man

Civil rights attorney Malcolm Ruff spoke on behalf of Ward-Blake’s family, whom he is representing in a federal civil lawsuit against the county and Strong. Ruff told the judge that Ward-Blake was a loved and gregarious 24-year-old before the traffic stop, but his paralysis forced him into a wheelchair and caused agonizing pain.

Ward-Blake died late last year at the age of 26 from injuries he suffered in an unrelated shooting.

Cotton said she had spent a lot of time thinking about Strong’s case and weighing why she had found him guilty. The judge said she considered the nature of the charges and the extent of Ward’s injuries; the impact on his family and the community; and the fact that Strong had no prior criminal history.

“Clearly this is a defendant who has a strong support system,” the judge said.

Cotton acknowledged the “awesome responsibility” law enforcement officers have to keep communities safe. But she said officers also have a duty to protect community trust, and when that trust is broken, “that’s an awesome failure, too.”

The judge sentenced Strong to a total of 20 years with all but one year suspended, meaning he could serve that time at a later date if he’s found in violation of the terms of his probation. Strong’s attorney, Shaun Owens, had asked the judge to defer the officer’s detention during the appeals process. Cotton denied that, as well as a request for home detention.

Ward-Blake’s mother, Rena Ward, bowed her head as she listened in the courtroom beside community organizers and other women impacted by police violence. Ward said she was disappointed Strong hadn’t been given more jail time but that she had to “give it up to God.”

“If he was here,” she said of her son, “[the sentencing] probably would have been stiffer.”

The $75 million wrongful death lawsuit his family filed in February is still pending.

Ward-Blake was pulled over on Oct. 17, 2019, for expired tags. During the stop, a Prince George’s police officer pulled his gun from his holster — which enraged Ward-Blake because his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter was in the back seat. Strong was among a group of other officers who soon arrived on scene.

Though Ward-Blake was compliant with all officer commands, including when he was detained, placed in handcuffs and sat on the curb, he verbally berated the officers, according to videos of the traffic stop and testimony during trial.

Because Ward-Blake would not stop yelling, Strong arrested him for disorderly conduct and walked him to the side of his cruiser, where he conducted a body search.

At trial, prosecutors and Strong’s defense attorneys disagreed on what happened next.

Prosecutors argued that Strong, fed up with Ward-Blake’s cursing, snapped and slammed the man headfirst into the concrete in a maneuver called a “takedown.” The state said that action constituted excessive force.

Strong’s defense attorneys, however, said Ward-Blake tried to flee police while Strong was searching him. They argued that the men fell to the ground together in a struggle, and that Ward-Blake’s paralysis was the result of a tragic accident.

At trial, Cotton discounted the defense’s theory and said Strong “did not act as a reasonable officer would.” She called his actions “excessive” and “unjustified.”

She made that argument again during sentencing.

Cotton did not, however, take into account Strong’s history of using force with others. Prosecutors presented evidence during the hearing about a previously undisclosed incident from November 2018 — one year before Ward-Blake was paralyzed — when Strong wrongfully detained someone who matched a robbery suspect description. The man, prosecutors said, protested the arrest. Strong took him to the ground, cuffed him and hit him several times, an action the police department’s internal investigation later found excessive.

Prosecutors argued this showed a pattern of behavior that the judge should consider before sentencing Strong. But Cotton disagreed, saying the matter was administrative, not criminal, and therefore irrelevant.

Strong’s police powers remain suspended until the police department’s internal affairs office completes its own investigation into the traffic stop.

Strong’s supporters watched from the gallery — several, including his father, in tears — as he hugged his attorney and stripped off his suit jacket, tie and button-down shirt. Then a bailiff secured cuffs around his wrists and walked him out of the courtroom.