- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A D.C. police officer filed a $3 million civil lawsuit Wednesday against two Prince George's County police officers, saying the officers beat him with a baton and struck him in the face while he was handcuffed during a confrontation outside a Fairmount Heights restaurant and strip club.

Officer Richard Merritt, a 23-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department, said police officers used “excessive force,” striking him in the legs with their batons as they attempted to get him to lay on the ground and punching him several times in the face after he was restrained, according to a civil lawsuit filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.

In an account of the incident written by county police, one of the officers admits using “a couple of knee strikes and pain compliance technique” during Officer Merritt’s arrest but states that the officer did so believing that the 6-foot-10-inch Officer Merritt was armed after he declined to comply with the officers’ commands.

Jimmy Bell, Officer Merritt’s attorney, said that early in the confrontation his client identified himself as a police officer. Mr. Bell questioned the officers’ account.

“When you believe that someone has a gun, you would pull out your gun and do what you have to do to go home at the end of the night,” said Mr. Bell, who currently represents a number of clients who have filed excessive-force complaints against various police agencies in the county. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

The incident that sparked the lawsuit occurred at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday as Officer Merritt, 47, said he went to the Ebony Inn restaurant to pick up some barbecue after his shift as a patrol officer in the 4th District.

Two county officers, identified in the lawsuit only as Officer Singh and Officer Shkurti, said they saw Officer Merritt in the parking lot with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cup of the whiskey. When officers confronted him and several other men in the parking lot, he was talking on his cellphone and refused to comply with commands that he stand up against a wall. Court records indicate that police noticed a bulge underneath Officer Merritt’s shirt and thought it was a weapon. The bulge turned out to be Officer Merritt’s department-issued handgun.

The documents, written by Officer Singh, do not indicate how Officer Merritt ended up on the ground but state that once there his arms were underneath him and officers struggled with him, inflicting several blows in order to handcuff him.

The lawsuit says Officer Merritt immediately identified himself as a police officer and indicated he was armed but that “Officer Singh did not believe him” and “attempted to snatch Officer Merritt’s phone from his hands.”

County police officials declined to discuss the lawsuit Wednesday. The county’s police union said protocols dictate encounters between officers and officials from other law enforcement agencies.

“There is a way that officers are to identify themselves to other agencies,” Fraternal Order of Police President Vincent Canales said. “I’m sure our members were acting lawfully.”

Four criminal charges — including possession of an open container of alcohol and resisting arrest — were filed against Officer Merritt, and D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump confirmed that he had been placed on noncontact status while the charges are adjudicated.

Two other incidents have prompted recent allegations of excessive force against Prince George's County police officers, both resulting in criminal charges this year.

Cpl. Rickie Adey faces assault charges from an Aug. 4, 2011, incident during which he is accused of holding his gun to the head of a 13-year-old boy and threatening him. Cpl. Donald Taylor faces misconduct and assault charges that say he tried to cover up an incident during which he struck a man on the head with his handgun, causing the gun to fire.

The number of high-profile incidents involving police officers worries the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“We have roughly 10 different incidents of police using excessive force,” NAACP President Bob Ross said of incidents involving both county and municipal police departments.

Excessive force complaints prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to place the Prince George's County police Department under federal monitoring from 2004 to 2009. Mr. Ross said he doesn’t think the excessive force allegations have risen nearly to the level they were in the 1990s and early 2000s that spawned the federal oversight. He said he would like to see the County Council create a task force that could examine complaints that arise out of interactions with the more than 25 public safety agencies that are active in the county.

“It’s not bad now, but you’ve got to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control,” Mr. Ross said.