David Lemon-Gray and three friends had just gotten breakfast at a McDonald’s in White Oak on Thursday and walked outside, he said, to take up their daily spot waiting for the landscaping company truck that would take them to their job.
“We weren’t bothering anybody,” Lemon-Gray, 25, said Friday as he described events preceding an encounter with police, captured on video, that continued to reverberate in Montgomery County.
Lemon-Gray said the exchange with police began when a sergeant approached the four African American men and questioned them about loitering. The sergeant was joined in a short time by at least six more officers. One, a white female, used the n-word about 12 minutes after she arrived — which one of Lemon-Gray’s friends captured in part on video and shared to social media Thursday afternoon. The county police department launched an investigation and by Thursday night released the female officer’s body-worn camera footage.
A day later, local politicians continued their condemnation of the officer’s use of the word, with some expanding their criticism after seeing the lengthier body-camera footage that included additional comments and a tone from the officer that County Council member Will Jawando said he found troubling.
“The whole tone is just demeaning,” said Jawando (D-At Large). “In my view, it’s not how we need to be treating people.”
A county police spokesman, Capt. Tom Jordan, said the police response was initiated by an officer who “observed the subjects loitering in an area that McDonald’s had identified as being problematic.”
He said the department is conducting an internal investigation of the incident that will include evaluation of “all statements made on the scene by all officers.”
A manager at the White Oak McDonald’s declined to comment Friday. Officials at the company’s headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.
Jordan declined to name the female officer at the center of the criticism, other than to say she is a patrol officer who has been who has been on the force for more than a decade. Jordan did not say whether any disciplinary action has been taken against her, citing procedures on personnel matters.
The union that represents county officers, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, defended the officer in a statement Friday that said the video showed she did not have ill intent.
The body-camera recording shows one of the men was the first to use the n-word, which was then used later by the officer as an exchange continued.
“A review of the body worn camera footage shows a retort, made without any discriminatory intent, repeating the comment made by a male subject being detained,” the union statement read. The union “and the officer involved do not condone discriminatory language nor do they believe there should be any discriminatory practices in policing.”
Meanwhile, community groups on Friday, including the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, expressed outrage over the incident.
“The county claimed in statements yesterday to have heavily trained officers in racial bias, yet an officer shamelessly used the ‘n-word’ knowing the cameras were rolling,” the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said in a statement, adding that the officer should be “decommissioned.” “This and other incidents clearly show that the county has a long way to go in eliminating racial bias.”
Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), speaking on behalf of the all-Democratic, nine-member council, issued a statement Friday condemning the events captured in the “disturbing video.”
“These actions are not representative of the high expectations we hold [for] our County’s police officers and it is my expectation that the individuals involved will be held accountable for these offensive actions ,” Navarro said in the statement.
Jawando and Council member Craig Rice (District 2) said they planned to meet with several of the young men on Monday, and Jawando called for the other officers’ body-camera footage to be released.
Lemon-Gray, who lives about a half-mile from the McDonald’s, said he was given a trespassing notice by police, warning him to stay away from the restaurant for 12 months, according to a copy of the notice he showed to a Washington Post reporter.
Jordan said all four men were given trespassing notices and he said two of them also received civil citations for having a small amount of marijuana.
Lemon-Gray said he and his friends did not go to work on Friday.
He said he was surprised how quickly the police presence swelled. “Multiple officers started to come out of nowhere,” he said.
Lemon-Gray said the female officer made several comments that he and his friends found disrespectful. As she searched his backpack, she questioned him about medication she found and his medical condition, her body-camera video shows.To another of the men, she appeared to make fun of his speech, implying it wasn’t English, the footage and its audio also showed.
“It seemed like she took the matters as a joke,” Lemon-Gray said.
And that extended, he thought, to her using the n-word.
Lemon-Gray acknowledged that young African American men freely use the word when speaking among each other but the context there, he said, is as a minority taking a demeaning word and taking the sting out of it.
“At the end of the day, your skin is your skin,” he said. When a white person, particularly one in a uniform, advances the same term, it’s different, he said.
“She was just completely out of line,” he said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.