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Video evidence has spurred internal investigations in Pr. George's

Ruben Castaneda

Prince George's County police officials responded quickly when a Post reporter asked about allegations that three or four county officers beat and pepper-sprayed a young man for no reason outside a pizza shop in Largo last month.

The reaction was much different when attorneys for John J. McKenna, a 21-year-old University of Maryland student, said their client was brutalized and falsely charged with assaulting a police officer and a police horse.

A key difference between the cases: McKenna's beating was captured on videotape. His attorney's released on April 12 after the state dropped charges against the student.

In the first case, Maj. Andy Ellis, a department spokesman, said officers used the proper amount of force on Prince A. Duncan-Lollis on the night of March 31.

Duncan-Lollis said he had wandered behind the counter of a Papa John's to inquire about a job. But he didn't want to leave the pizza shop even when an officer responded to a call by a manager, and resisted arrest, Ellis said. Duncan-Lollis was not charged with any crime, but was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center for observation because he may have been on PCP, Ellis said.

In the case of McKenna, Chief Robert L. Hylton said he was "outraged and disappointed" by the conduct of the officers involved. As of Friday, four officers, including two believed to have taken part in the beating of McKenna, had been suspended.

To date, no video has publicly surfaced showing Duncan-Lollis's encounter with police.

Asked whether police respond differently to allegations of brutality depending on whether there is a video, Ellis, the police spokesman, said, "Certainly, we take all allegations seriously. The more evidence we have, the better it is for our investigation. The fact we have videotaped evidence (in the College Park incident) will help advance our investigation more quickly."

Sharon Weidenfeld is the private investigator who found the video that shows McKenna being slammed against a wall by two county officers, at least one of whom also beat him with a baton; a third county officer then rushes in and strikes McKenna several times with his baton as the student crumples to the ground.

Weidenfeld disagreed with Ellis's assessment.

"Beatdowns by the police are something that in my work I hear about on a daily basis," Weidenfeld said. "Unless we have video to prove it, nobody takes these things seriously." Without the video, Weidenfeld said, county police and prosecutors would have dismissed McKenna's claims of being brutalized.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," Weidenfeld said. "A video is worth a million."

A county police video was worth $125,000 in county taxpayer money to Rafael A. Rodriguez.

In October, 2008, county police Cpls. John Wynkoop and Scott Wilson conducted a traffic stop on Rodriguez in the College Park area. Wynkoop charged Rodriguez with two counts of assault. He alleged in a charging document that Rodriguez struck him in the stomach with a closed fist.

A police cruiser video camera -- subpoenaed by defense attorney Terrell N. Roberts III -- showed Wynkoop yanking Rodriguez out of his car when he did not immediately follow an order to get out. Wynkoop slammed Rodriguez against the car and handcuffed one of his hands, and suddenly Wilson pepper-sprayed Rodriguez, the video shows. The spray apparently also hit Wynkoop, who cried out, "I can't see, dude!"

The three men tumble out of camera range, then Rodriguez returns and sits near the car, the video shows. Wynkoop returns, grabs Rodriguez by the shoulders and slams him against the car, then Wilson strikes the motorist several times in the head with his police baton.

Prosecutors dropped charges when Roberts gave the state a copy of the video. Police quickly suspended Wilson and Wynkoop. An internal investigation into their conduct has been completed, and the two officers are awaiting a police trial board hearing, Ellis said.
Rodriguez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging excessive force.

In February, the county settled the lawsuit for $125,000.

"Beatdowns by the police are something that in my work I hear about on a daily basis," Weidenfeld said. "Unless we have video to prove it, nobody takes these things seriously."

-- Ruben Castaneda

By Ruben Castaneda  |  April 20, 2010; 6:13 AM ET
Categories:  Pr. George's , Ruben Castaneda , Schools , Updates  | Tags: John J. McKenna  
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