A police officer who held a gun to a man’s head, apparently to impress his friends, was convicted Wednesday of first-degree assault and misconduct in office.
After Officer Jenchesky Santiago’s conviction, the Prince George’s County police chief condemned the officer’s actions and said he was recommending that the department fire him.
The police department also released a cellphone video of the May 2014 incident, which showed Santiago holding the gun close to the man’s forehead and shouting, “I dare you to [expletive] fight me, son.”
William Cunningham, the victim, said Wednesday that he still thinks every day about the terrifying traffic stop beside his front lawn . “I thought I was going to die right there,” he said. “I just thought it was over.”
He complained to the police department shortly after the episode, and the department alerted the state’s attorney’s office.
“I’m thankful justice was served,” Cunningham said Wednesday.
At the time of the confrontation, Santiago had two friends from New Jersey riding with him in his police car, although he was not authorized to bring along visitors.
“We think, unfortunately, what happened is that he was showing off for his friends,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks.
The encounter began when Cunningham’s cousin stopped at Cunningham’s Bowie home to drop him off. The men talked in the car briefly before Santiago pulled up beside them in a cruiser.
Alsobrooks said that Santiago repeatedly asked the men what they were doing there, even after they explained that Cunningham lived in the house.
Santiago told them they were parked illegally — which prosecutors said was not true — and Cunningham said he would get out of the car and go inside.
Alsobrooks said Santiago then backed up, parked his cruiser and ran to Cunningham at the door of his home, where Santiago pulled out his gun.
“I was shocked. At the instant he pointed the gun to my head, I was shocked,” Cunningham said. He said that he was so dumbfounded that he found it hard to move quickly, and at first he simply repeated what was happening to his cousin, who was still nearby .
In the video, Cunningham says, “He put a gun to my head. He put a gun to my head,” before freezing in place for a long moment with Santiago’s weapon in his face.
Witnesses, including Cunningham, told investigators that Santiago allegedly uttered a threat that was not caught on video. Alsobrooks said the threat was: “We’re PG police, and we shoot people.”
Santiago’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Santiago will serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years without parole for using a firearm in a violent crime. Alsobrooks said he could be sentenced to a term of up to 45 years.
In a statement, Police Chief Mark Magaw called Santiago’s behavior in the video “among the worst I’ve seen as Chief of Police” and that it “will be taken into account when I make a decision about his employment.” At a news conference, Magaw said he wanted to investigate how Santiago got through the police academy, to help prevent hiring anyone else who would exhibit such behavior.
Santiago had been with the department for two years and was assigned to patrol before being suspended in June 2014. After his indictment, he was suspended without pay.Under state law, he has the right to appeal the department’s administrative investigation, the department said in a statement.
Magaw said that he told Cunningham: “We will become a better police department because you came forward.”
Cunningham said that the experience has affected his sleep and sometimes impairs his focus in his job installing gas fireplaces.
Cunningham said he hopes other officers will watch the video and that “officers will be more mindful of the situations they get in and the way they conduct themselves.”
He also encouraged people to report incidents promptly, as he did. “If anytime you feel your rights are being violated, you should step up to the plate and say something.”