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Trump pardons former Prince George’s officer whose conviction was ‘watershed’ moment for police reform in county

Stephanie C. Mohr arrives at a federal courthouse in 2001. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

President Trump granted a pardon this week to a former Prince George’s County canine police officer who was convicted of a federal civil rights violation and eventually served 10 years in federal prison for releasing her police dog on an unarmed homeless man in 1995.

A federal jury convicted Stephanie C. Mohr in 2001 on a felony charge after prosecutors said she set her dog to bite one of two men police stopped after they received a report of a possible burglary in Takoma Park, Md.

The men, immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, had climbed on top of a printing shop building to sleep for the night. They complied with police commands, and authorities learned they were not burglars, according to court testimony previously reported in The Washington Post. During the encounter, Mohr released her dog on one of the men, Ricardo Mendez, who wound up needing emergency surgery and 10 stitches.

Mohr has long contended she was sentenced too harshly. She has said she was only doing her job during that 1995 attack and that she was used by federal authorities to set an example.

Jason Johnson, the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund that helped secure her pardon and represented her through appeals, called her decade-long sentence “unconscionably harsh” for a “minor dog bite.”

“While this pardon can’t erase the years Stephanie lost, it ends a saga for Stephanie and her family and creates a Christmas like none other,” Johnson said in a statement.

But news of Mohr’s pardon did not sit well for advocates and officials from that era, who remember her prosecution as one of the first meaningful instances of officer accountability in Prince George’s County.

Mohr’s prosecution ran parallel to an FBI investigation into the force’s canine unit sparked by a whistleblowing private investigator and reporting by The Washington Post on the canine unit, which ultimately prompted a Justice Department review of the police department requiring a litany of changes to its use-of-force protocols.

“For the first time in real memory, up to that point, the idea of shining a light on police misconduct was simply something that never happened,” said Mark Spencer, who was hired to be the police department’s first inspector general in response to federally mandated reform. “It was a watershed moment.”

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The decade that followed Mohr’s conviction focused on law enforcement accountability. The new state’s attorney at the time campaigned on the platform. The county executive, who had prioritized it during his own tenure as top prosecutor, committed to rooting out wrongdoing. And a new police chief, now-Sheriff Melvin High, was hired to wrangle a beleaguered department and implement the many reforms federal officials demanded.

“Without Stephanie Mohr, we really don’t get to the point where we are now in Prince George’s County, where we can more openly and through a more transparent process talk about police community relations,” said Spencer, now the inspector general at the county sheriff’s office and a native of Prince George’s.

That historical context, coupled with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and push for police reform, made the news of Mohr’s pardon difficult to process, Spencer and others said.

For Sharon Weidenfeld, the whistleblowing private investigator who presented a trove of medical and court files to the FBI that sparked its investigation into brutality from the Prince George’s canine unit, Mohr’s pardon by Trump is not unexpected.

“Nationally, it sends the message that he has been sending throughout his presidency, that he supports the police no matter what they do. I think in the county, it sends the same message and it sends the message that he doesn’t care about Prince George’s County,” she said. “But I think people in the county should only fight harder and hold their local leaders more accountable.”

Mohr was convicted after her first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, 11-to-1 for acquittal. In her second trial, federal prosecutors convinced a judge to permit them to introduce evidence of other allegations of Mohr’s wrongdoing, use of racial epithets and excessive use of dog bites, particularly on Black people, that the first jury did not hear.

According to past reporting from The Post, Mohr had been accused of brutality in at least four civil lawsuits and was flagged by the department’s early warning system. But she had received minimal discipline. Two of the lawsuits ended with the county agreeing to pay settlements. Mohr was found not liable in at least one that went to trial.

Mohr’s defense has said she released her dog on the instructions of her training officer after one of the men made a “sudden motion as if to escape.” Johnson said the government wrongly cast her as a racist police officer, and she denied using “racially derogatory language.”

Mohr was among 29 people who received a pardon or commutation from Trump on Wednesday night, including real estate developer Charles Kushner, his son-in-law’s father, and Roger Stone and Paul Manafort — two of the president’s former advisers who were convicted as part of the FBI’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

White House officials said in a statement that Mohr’s clemency recognizes her “service and the lengthy term that Ms. Mohr served in prison.”

“She served 10 years in prison for releasing her K-9 partner on a burglary suspect in 1995, resulting in a bite wound requiring ten stitches,” the statement said. “Officer Mohr was a highly commended member of the police force prior to her prosecution.”

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National Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Yoes celebrated Trump’s decision to pardon Mohr.

“We strongly feel she was doing her job and even with the circumstances, 10 years or 10 stitches, that all shows that the courts were, in our opinion, extreme in their actions,” he said.

Over the past decade, the National FOP has passed multiple resolutions advocating for the release of Mohr, calling her conviction an “unjust act” and a “miscarriage of justice.” In November, Yoes sent a letter to Trump urging him to pardon the former Prince George’s County canine police officer.

Yoes said the pardon serves as a recognition of the hard work and sacrifices made by law enforcement officers across this country.

“This is an incident involving Stephanie, but in the reality what it is, is showing support for law enforcement,” he said.

Patrice Sulton, director of D.C. Justice Lab and a lecturer at George Washington University Law School, criticized the “practice of using clemency powers to send a message that police violence is less serious than other kinds of violence.” But she urged caution in denouncing the pardon entirely because of the message it sent, stressing that criminal prosecution should not be viewed as a long-term solution to keeping people safe.

“What we want so badly is someone’s head on a stick to show that we care about a certain issue instead of wanting to unearth a problem and deal with it,” she said. “The bloodthirst is part of how we got here, part of how police violence has gotten as bad as it is.”

Mohr’s case, along with several other high-profile police-misconduct incidents and pressure from community and faith leaders, ushered in a new era of transparency — one that reform advocates say has fallen short.

“I wish I could say it put an end to things. It didn’t,” Weidenfeld said. “But it made a dent.”

The county police department is facing a federal lawsuit filed by current and former Black and Hispanic officers with the force who have accused the department of systemic discrimination and bias in hiring and discipline. The most recent police chief resigned last summer and County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks has yet to replace him. A police reform work group she created after nationwide unrest recently sent her dozens of recommendations for mending the relationship between the department and the community.

Spencer said he dislikes the message Mohr’s pardon sends to the public about the law enforcement community — that her prosecution and conviction was too harsh.

Her actions, he said, were “unnecessary, excessive and inhumane.”

“That’s the whole story,” he said. “No one has to guess about that, all they have to do is ask themselves: What if that was you or your loved one? How would you react?”

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect job description for Patrice Sulton. She is director of D.C. Justice Lab.

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