An Officer--And An Ungentle Man
Here's Sunday's column:
When two men delivering furniture for a reputable retailer end up getting shot by a customer, something has gone terribly wrong. When the shooter is a police officer and the incident took place in Prince George's County, alarm bells go off -- uh-oh, here we go again, say residents who have lived through all too many cases involving overzealous cops.
Then, when the police department leaps to the shooter's defense -- announcing initially, before any investigation, that the unarmed deliverymen would probably be charged with assault -- the groans of exasperation grow louder.
And when it turns out that the shooter is an officer who has been criticized again and again over many years for being a volatile, violent man, well, sometimes the stench of an incident can be overpowering.
Last month, when Prince George's police Cpl. Keith Washington shot Marlo Furniture deliverymen Robert White, who remains in critical condition, and Brandon Clark, who died Friday from the gunshot wounds, we quickly learned of allegations that Washington on three occasions lit into officers of the Simmons Acres Homeowners Association in Accokeek, where he lives. Washington was accused of "yelling, screaming and cursing" at one association leader, shoving a second in the chest and assaulting a third. A misdemeanor charge filed in one of those incidents was later dropped.
Washington won his current job as the county's deputy director of homeland security because County Executive Jack Johnson considered him "mentally tough." Johnson and Washington are fraternity brothers and occasionally dine together; Washington has served as Johnson's driver and has worked on and donated money to Johnson's campaign.
Whatever happened last month, the long list of allegations about Washington's aggressive, in-your-face behavior raises powerful questions about just what he is doing in a position of authority in county government.
"He's a volatile guy, rude and arrogant," says Terrell Roberts, a lawyer for a Hyattsville man who sued Washington over a 1997 incident in which the officer was accused of harassing and tormenting a witness after a traffic accident. "For what he's done, he shouldn't be a police officer."
"It's almost 10 years ago, but there's not a day that goes by when I don't think about what he did to me," says that witness, David Paul Maslousky, an auto mechanic who won $210,000 in damages in his suit against Washington. The award and verdict were partially upheld and partially overturned by an appeals court; in a retrial, Washington prevailed.
Neither Washington nor two lawyers who have represented him in the past returned calls about the shooting or previous incidents. Washington has denied any wrongdoing.
Maslousky, his friend Paul Essex -- a Prince George's lawyer who was involved in the 1997 accident -- and other witnesses to Washington's behavior at that scene described the officer in court as curt, argumentative and frightening.
In his testimony, Essex gave this account of their exchange:
When Washington arrived, he said, "You caused this accident."
"That's a decision for a court to make," Essex replied.
"Out here, I am the court," Washington said.
When Essex objected, Washington put him under arrest.
Washington wasn't finished: "He grabbed my arm and he pulled me, he jacked my arm up and pulled me back over to the driver's side front fender," Essex testified.
Moments later, Essex saw Washington force his friend to the ground, arresting Maslousky for hindering, a charge that was later dropped. "I've never felt so impotent in my whole life," Essex told the court. "Officer Washington behaved like no other police officer I had been involved with."
A witness to the accident, Anne Marie Curtis, confirmed Essex's account, saying Washington acted rudely and curtly. Another witness, Maniram Tiwari, testified that Washington "had a chip on his shoulder."
After he was arrested, Maslousky said, Washington drove him to the police station, yelling and threatening all the way. "I started to pray out loud," the mechanic said in court. "I started the Our Father and then moved on to the Hail Mary."
When Maslousky got to "Forgive this man, Father, for he does not know what he is doing," Washington laughed: "And he says, 'Who's that God you're praying to? Let's see your God get you out of jail.' " Then Washington "belched out very loud" and told Maslousky, "You know, Bubba's in jail and Bubba is going to have his way with you." Washington testified that he did not say anything like that.
Washington's lawyer, county attorney Andrew Murray, described his client as a "no-nonsense military-type guy, blunt, short." Murray told jurors: "No one has a constitutional right to a polite and cordial police officer, distasteful as we may find that to be. When Cpl. Washington comes on the scene, he shows strength, assurance, pompousness. But these are characteristics that he employs . . . so that he can make order out of chaos -- these are characteristics that enable him to survive his day-to-day contact with citizens so that he can go home and see his family."
Washington, who served in the Army before joining the county police in 1990, testified that "you have to take charge of the situation if there's chaos and you may not be considered amenable or courteous in your directions."
"I'm not emotional by nature," he told jurors. "I always know what I'm going to do. So I very rarely show an emotion, especially when performing a task."
Maslousky has felt a whole new set of emotions since his encounter with Washington -- most notably, a level of fear he'd never before experienced. "I've lost a lot of faith in the system and the police," he told me Thursday. "I hope these guys recover from this shooting and get to tell their story." The next day, one of Washington's victims died.
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