Last week, the New York Times sent reporters out on police ride-alongs in 10 U.S. cities. The subsequent Times article, called “One Police Shift: Patrolling an Anxious America” got a lot of attention. One officer chosen for the ride-along, Prince George’s County, Md., Police Lt. Scott Finn made a derisive comment about Black Lives Matter protesters. As my colleague Erik Wemple points out, Finn has a long and problematic history.
— [Finn] was investigated for shooting an unarmed man. He was eventually cleared.
— Drew an anonymous complaint in March 1999 from another officer after an incident in which a Capitol Heights man alleged that Finn “shoved his head against a patrol car.” The anonymous tipster said that Finn “has two speeds: start and overdrive. His over aggressiveness is what makes a calm situation get out of control.” A civilian review board concluded that Finn should be charged with lying. He got a promotion and a raise.
— Drew complaints for harassment and a threat in 2000 from a Forestville [Md.] woman.
— Appeared on a list generated by a police department computer to flag officers who’d drawn misconduct complaints.
— Responded with several other officers to an “incoherent” 911 call in Suitland, Md., in September 1999, and after arriving at the scene arrested 29-year-old Elmer C. Newman Jr., an African American man who was high on cocaine.
In the Newman case, Finn and the other officers claimed to have arrested Newman after he attacked them. But Newman was later found dead on the floor of his cell. An autopsy revealed that the officers had broken two of his ribs and two bones in his neck, and caused other internal injuries.
As Wemple points out, a 2001 Post investigation found that despite the county’s long history of misconduct, the department had a history of clearing its officers of any wrongdoing.
Wemple’s post takes the New York Times to task for not revealing Finn’s history. My question: Why is Finn still a cop at all? Why did these incidents of misconduct not only not lead to discipline, but instead were followed by promotions or raises? Moreover, why in the world would the Prince George’s Police Department choose this particular cop to host a ride-along with a New York Times reporter?
The Prince George’s County Police Department, incidentally, was under federal monitoring for much of the 1990 and 2000s. From a 2009 article in The Post:
After a series of shootings early in the decade drew the attention of federal investigators, the county agreed to make the improvements under the watch of an independent monitor in 2004 to avoid legal action. At the time, FBI agents were also investigating four incidents in which suspects died after being injured in struggles with county police.
It took county police five years — not the planned three — to meet the requirements but County Executive Jack B. Johnson yesterday praised the accomplishment nonetheless.
“We have rebuilt a police department that was once and now is considered a model for law enforcement,” Johnson said at a news conference.
Johnson gave these comments seven months after his county’s police department participated in a botched SWAT raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Md., Mayor Cheye Calvo, killing his two dogs and holding him and his mother-in-law at gunpoint for hours. Johnson had dismissed the idea that the police had done anything wrong in the case, explaining that the fact that Calvo had been cleared of any drug-dealing and that an internal investigation had cleared police was “a pat on the back for everybody involved, I think.” (Johnson would later be indicted for corruption and is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence.)
The department had also been under a consent decree from 1999 through 2007 for its K9 units, which had an unfortunate habit of biting people.
Go back through The Post archives, and you’ll find that Johnson’s assurances that the agency has made improvements that make it a “model for law enforcement” are a common refrain. Here’s a 1987 story about police brutality in the county. It notes that Prince George’s County had been accused of systematic misconduct, brutality and coverups since the early 1970s. Each time there’s a new round of brutality revelations, there were assurances from county officials that despite the ugly history, things were getting better.
Since 2009, the department appears to have avoided more consent decrees, but hasn’t avoided more scandal and allegations of brutality, including from a TV reporter, in the beating of a Maryland college student that was captured on numerous cellphones and the beating of an off-duty cop from Washington.
The college student, John McKenna, was beaten and arrested for assaulting police officers. Cellphone video shot by numerous nearby students clearly showed that the officer attacked McKenna without provocation. When a security camera that should have captured the incident failed to produce any footage, police claimed it had been pointed in another direction. The officer in charge of the security cameras was married to one of the officers accused of beating McKenna. Despite a $2 million settlement to McKenna from the county, the officers were let off with a slap on the wrist. From a 2014 editorial in The Post:
IN PRINCE George’s County, it is now clear that the police, without provocation, can beat an unarmed young student senseless — with impunity. They can blatantly lie about it — with impunity. They can stonewall and cover it up for months — with impunity. They can express no remorse and offer no apology — with impunity . . .
There were dozens of witnesses, including police. Yet what followed was an official wall of silence, dishonesty and denial from the department. Mr. McKenna’s injuries, the police initially said, were sustained when he was kicked by a horse.
The cops’ story fell apart when the video surfaced, but even then their stonewalling continued. For months, no one would identify the officers in riot gear who were shown beating Mr. McKenna.
It was only due to the persistence of Mr. McKenna’s lawyers that the cover-up and lies were shredded. At trial, in late 2012, a jury convicted Mr. Harrison on a felony charge of assault. Another officer, Reginald Baker, was acquitted, although he, too, used his baton to beat Mr. McKenna as he lay stunned and defenseless on the ground.
Harrison’s conviction was later thrown out by a local judge, who also happened to have once been married to a Prince George’s County cop accused of brutality. Even with the conviction, Harrison was allowed to retire with a full pension. When the judge threw it out, he was eligible to work again as a police officer.
The beating of the TV reporter and her cameraman was especially pertinent to the current discussion of police brutality. Because of one of the agency’s consent decrees with the Justice Department, all of its police cruisers had been outfitted with cameras. Nine cruisers were at the scene of the incident. The county claimed in court filings that there was no video footage of the altercation because all nine dash cameras had coincidentally malfunctioned, or the tapes had been lost.
On second thought, maybe the department’s decision to put the reporters with Finn was spot-on. If the aim here was to give the New York Times a glimpse of a day on the job with cop who is representative of the agency he works for, Finn and the Prince George’s County Police Department are a pretty good fit.