A Prince George's County police officer was found guilty Tuesday of assault and official misconduct for pulling a homeless woman by her ears and slapping her to roust her from sleeping in the doorway of a store.
George Merkel, a corporal with about 15 years in the department, was convicted during a two-day bench trial before Prince George's County Circuit Judge Dwight D. Jackson.
Merkel's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, declined to comment on the verdict. Merkel was placed on administrative leave after the Sept. 22, 2016, incident.
In what he called "a difficult case," Jackson said his verdict was guided by two events he deemed "somewhat extraordinary": that Merkel's actions so bothered fellow officers they reported them to supervisors, and that the homeless woman, while incoherent, had her "sensibilities offended," according to her testimony.
Events began about 1 a.m. that morning when Merkel was on patrol and encountered the sleeping woman in front of a closed pawnshop in Lanham, attorneys in the case said.
During the trial, the two other officers who were also present testified that Merkel repeatedly yelled at the victim to "Get the f--- out of my town" and proceeded to yank the woman up from the ground by her ears before slapping her with an open hand on the cheek. Both of those officers described the woman as distant and unresponsive and said Merkel hit her hard enough to cause her to stagger a few steps and grab her face. The woman then attempted to grab her slippers and cup of soda, which the officers said Merkel kicked over before leaving.
Merkel's use of force left Officer Noel Andreas, who had joined the squad a few months earlier, feeling "shocked," he testified.
After leaving the incident, Andreas said he met with a different officer who had been at the scene and with other squad members and that they told a supervisor about what had happened, according to Andreas's testimony.
Merkel told the court that while on patrol that morning, he had called the dispatcher asking for backup about making contact with a "suspicious person" and said he knew a nearby convenience store had reported problems with aggressive panhandlers and theft.
He said he started his exchange with the homeless woman in a calm tone, to get her to move along, but was met with her "blank, hollow stare." He said he then began speaking more harshly, including cursing, as a tactic to get her to leave the storefront.
When the woman continued to ignore his orders and repeated his words in a confused manner, Merkel testified, he drew her to her feet by pulling at a pressure point under her jaw in a technique he said was taught in training, and also used what he called a light slap to get her attention.
Merkel's attorney argued that the strike did not injure the woman, that the actions were not malicious or vengeful and were an appropriate use of force in pursuit of enforcing the law. Bonsib also argued that even if Merkel had misjudged or acted at odds with standard training, the issue did not rise to a criminal level.
That view of standard procedure was countered by Sgt. William Gleason, a county officer who testified as a use-of-force expert on behalf of the prosecution. Gleason said striking a passively resisting person, or a person who is ignoring orders but not physically resisting them, does not follow department policy.
Standard protocol in a situation like Merkel's would be to repeat verbal commands and escort the person by the arm away from the area, Gleason said, while acknowledging many use-of-force decisions must be made at the officer's discretion.
Merkel was commended by the department in 2009, receiving a gold medal of valor for pulling someone from a burning vehicle, county police said.
Assistant State's Attorney Joel T. Patterson said that this case differed from a typical police matter in that rather than a citizen's complaint, the case began when officers with the same training as Merkel reported he had gone too far.
And before the verdict was rendered, Patterson told the court, "Saying the ends justify the means, that's not how the law works."
A sentencing hearing is scheduled Jan. 5.