The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police berated a boy who ran away from school. They were suspended, sued.

Ridicule and insults directed at 5-year-old in Montgomery County were recorded on police body camera

Video recorded by Montgomery County police of their encounter with 5-year-old boy at his school. (Video: The Washington Post)

Two Maryland police officers who berated and threatened a 5-year-old boy who had run off from school were suspended without pay, according to newly released police records of the encounter that went viral last spring and was condemned nationwide.

The sanctions, details of which emerged as a separate lawsuit over the incident was settled for $275,000, came after a lengthy internal affairs investigation by the Montgomery County Police Department. In that probe, Officers Dionne Holliday and Kevin Christmon voiced both regrets and justifications for how they treated the East Silver Spring Elementary School student over the course of the 51-minute encounter.

“I really do think that my actions were appropriate at the time, because of the fact the child was acting noncompliant,” Christmon said when asked specifically about holding the child down in a chair for 80 seconds at his school.

Holliday told investigators that raising her voice at the child probably didn’t solve anything. She acknowledged telling the boy he should be beaten and calling him “a shepherd for the devil,” but asserted that’s how he was acting.

"From the jump, an attack." Child trauma experts weigh in on encounter

Their views of what transpired also played out during 18 months of separate, contentious litigation during which their attorneys criticized the boy and said it would be difficult to gauge what effect the incident had on him. “This child had a lot of problems before this event,” an attorney for the officers asserted in court this summer.

Such claims, countered attorneys for the boy and his mother, trivialized what he was put through. Uniformed officers shouted in his face. One compared him to a “little beast” who should be placed in a crate. “Way past the line of emotional child abuse,” lawyers James Papirmeister and Matthew Bennett wrote in court filings.

Their lawsuit, which had been set to go to trial Jan. 23, was instead settled, officials announced last week. Money received by the family will go into a trust fund to which the child will have access when he turns 18.

“Our client is glad to put this litigation behind her, and the police and school have finally been held accountable,” Papirmeister told The Washington Post on behalf of the child’s mother.

Holliday, who was suspended for four weeks, declined to comment. Christmon, who was suspended for nearly two weeks, declined to comment through his attorney.

Video of the incident burst around the country at a time of increased scrutiny over recorded police encounters. But most of those interactions involved adults, not a kindergartner. Among local officials, many called for enhanced police training in communicating with children in crisis. Others said the video spoke to something more fundamental: the need to address a child with patience, not threats and insults.

“There’s just some common sense with that,” Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass said at the time.

‘I hope your momma let me beat you’

The internal affairs investigation began shortly after the Jan. 14, 2020, encounter, when the boy’s mother filed a complaint and spoke with investigators. She recalled that the first night after the incident, at 3 a.m., her son awoke crying and said he had been convinced the officers were going to shoot him.

The Washington Post received the internal affairs records related to the investigation recently based on a new Maryland law that allows departments to release certain records of alleged police misconduct. In response to a request from The Post, the department provided a 19-page summary of its probe and a brief description of the accusations and findings against the officers.

Investigators studied Christmon’s body-camera video of the encounter and what precipitated it. They learned that shortly after lunch, inside his kindergarten class, the boy had grown upset and threw a clipboard at both a fellow student and his teacher. He then ran from the room, down a flight of stairs and fled the building. A school administrator spotted him running away — toward a congested section of Silver Spring — and police were called.

Montgomery County police release video showing officers yelling at 5-year-old boy

Christmon’s video opened with him pulling up to the boy as he hid behind a parked car about one block from the school. “Come here, buddy,” the officer said pleasantly, approaching him on foot and asking what he was doing.

The child didn’t respond. Christmon’s tone went stern.

“Look at me! Why are you out of school?” the officer asked, telling him he had to return.

The boy didn’t budge. Christmon took his left arm and pulled him toward another uniformed officer and two marked patrol cars.

“No, no, no, no, no,” the boy said, crying out for the first time.

An assistant principal who arrived calmed him down. She and Christmon walked him to Christmon’s car. The officer lifted him into the back seat and buckled him in with a seat belt.

“I don’t wanna to go,” he said, his voice shaking and coughing.

“I don’t care!” the officer replied. “You don’t make that decision for yourself!”

Holliday spoke to the child through an open door. “Does your momma spank you?” she asked, adding, “I’m going to ask her if I can do it.”

In speaking with an internal affairs detective, Christmon described his initial interactions with the child, saying he “cried a lot but also seemed defiant and headstrong about not wanting to return to school.”

The police video showed that after the group arrived at the school and into an office, the child balked about going farther or sitting in a chair.

“No,” he said.

“No what?” Christmon told him, his voice rising. “Sit down! Sit down!”

Christmon lifted him up and placed him into a chair. The boy suddenly started wailing again. Holliday leaned into his face and shouted: “Boy, I’m telling you: I hope your momma let me beat you!”

‘He was screaming and crying’

An internal affairs detective interviewed Holliday, showing her parts of the video, and asked how close she was to the child. “Very close,” she said, “because he was screaming. So I need to get close so that he could hear me.”

Holliday, who joined the force in 2001, said that she didn’t remember saying: “I hope your momma let me beat you. I swear to you, I’m gonna wear it out.”

Investigators asked what she meant. “More — more of just a threat. ... Get him to shut up,” Holliday answered.

Shown another portion of the video, depicting her yelling in what court records described as “five primal screams” into his face, Holliday said she was trying to show him how it felt to be shouted at but acknowledged her actions “were probably not appropriate.”

Christmon, who joined the force in 2017, said he’d raised his voice to counteract the boy doing so himself. “He was screaming and crying so loud no one could hear anyone in the room,” the officer said.

Police de-escalation training gaining renewed clout as law enforcement seeks to reduce killings

Investigators asked him about a moment when the assistant principal held out a phone so the boy could speak with his mother. The child swatted toward the phone. “I wish you would!” Christmon had yelled at him as he held the boy down on a chair. “I wish you would slap that phone out of her hand!”

The officer told investigators he held the boy down to ensure he’d speak to his mother, but he said his method was probably not appropriate. Asked to repeat the answer, Christmon requested a break, and returned with a different answer: “I really do think that my actions were appropriate at the time, because of the fact that the child was acting noncompliant.”

When Christmon viewed video of the opening moments inside the assistant principal’s office, he expressed a broader regret. “Honestly, after looking at this, we should have dropped him off and left,” Christmon said.

Internal affairs investigators also asked the officers about how they spoke about the child and possible punishments while sitting and standing only feet from him. “A crate. Crate him,” Holliday had said, laughing and adding: “You wanna act like a little beast.”

Holliday told investigators that the boy wasn’t acting like a child should and was out of control.

“She went on to say animals should be crated and she never said [the boy] should be crated,” the report states.

‘He was definitely scared’

Investigators also spoke to two educators who were in the office.

Justine Pfeiffer, the assistant principal, complimented the officers for helping return the boy to school. “But it seemed like their tactics escalated the situation,” she said, according to the report. “I did not expect them to behave that way. ... I expected them to maybe speak firmly and not yell and say things that would help calm him down.”

“He was definitely scared,” Pfeiffer said of the student.

Debra Bezold, a reading specialist, said that as the boy slouched in his chair, one of the officers picked him up several times to make him sit up straight. “He was crying, he was upset, but they kept asking him to sit in the chair,” she said. “In my opinion, I don’t feel like — knowing this student — that that was the way to get to him. He was complying for him.”

She said the officers’ behavior bothered her. “But I didn’t think it was my place to tell a police officer what to do,” Bezold said.

Pfeiffer, who now holds a position in the school system’s central office, declined to comment through a school spokesman. Bezold, who has since retired, could not be reached for comment.

‘We want you to beat him’

When the boy’s mother arrived, having been called there by the school, the officers no longer yelled at the child but advocated she severely spank him.

“We want you to beat him,” Holliday said, later adding, “All I can tell you is to beat that ass.”

Shown the video, the officer was asked if her language was professional. “No,” Holliday answered, “I could probably have worded that ... much better.”

Both officers were questioned about a brief demonstration Christmon performed on the child, when he fastened a handcuff around the boy’s right wrist, had him turn around, and drew both his hands together to simulate a full handcuffing.

“Is that how you want to live your life?” Christmon asked.

The mother did not ask the officer to stop the demonstration.

Christmon told investigators that the minute-long cuffing was not unlike his attempts to engage children he encountered on the beat — whether through squirt gun battles or foot races — and offer them life guidance. “It was solely so he could see how it feels to not be able to do what you want to do,” Christmon said.

Montgomery County settles lawsuit over police berating 5-year-old

On Dec. 30, 2020, the officers were administratively charged with several counts, including neglect of duty and failure to be courteous. They agreed to the proposed punishments, and the matter was closed.

In early 2021, the boy’s mother and her attorneys sued the county school board, the county government and the two officers. Among their claims: The officers put the boy in such immediate fear of being hurt that it amounted to assault, and their broader actions constituted “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Attorneys for the county, school system and officers fought back, setting up more than a year of dueling court filings and hearings over whether the claims should be tossed.

At a recent hearing, when the assault claims were argued, an attorney for the officers said that any threats made were not imminent. In the case of Holliday, for example, her talk of beating the child included the condition that his mom would have to approve. But Circuit Judge Jill Cummins ruled there was enough circumstantial evidence indicating “that the officers’ behavior was assaultive in nature” and the claims should remain — joining a series of other counts against the officers set to be heard at trial.

Cummings dismissed all but one claim against the school board, whose attorneys had argued the educators couldn’t have predicted how the officers would react.

Within days of the judge’s rulings, the attorneys for all parties sat down for settlement discussions. The county agreed to pay money to the child’s family from its self insurance fund without admitting liability. The family agreed to drop the lawsuit or any future litigation.

Papirmeister, one of the attorneys for the boy’s mother, said Maryland laws essentially capped any damages at $400,000, and the jury could have awarded less. “That certainly drove our thinking,” he said.

Loading...