On October 17, 2019, a 24-year-old black man named Demonte Ward-Blake was driving a vehicle in Oxon Hill, Maryland, with his girlfriend’s six-year-old daughter as a passenger in the backseat. The car had expired tags. A Prince George County Police Department officer stopped the vehicle.
Various news reports said Ward-Blake was compliant and cooperative during the initial stage of the traffic stop, but became verbally agitated after the officer pulled his gun. The young Black man pointed out to the officer that his girlfriend’s six-year-old daughter was in the backseat of his vehicle. He nonetheless remained cooperative with the officer.
The officer making the traffic stop summoned backup to reinforce the minor traffic violation. One of the backup officers who responded was Bryant Strong—a six-year veteran who had developed a history of using excessive force and wrongfully detaining individuals. He assisted in removing the agitated Ward-Blake from the vehicle.
The two police officers, with little to no reason, placed Mr. Ward-Blake in handcuffs to deescalate a situation they had created. The officers involved in the arrest said Ward-Blake tried to flee, after which Strong slammed him to the ground, breaking vertebrae in his neck and spine. The injury left Ward-Blake paralyzed from the neck down.
Police Officer Indicted for Second Degree Assault
Officer Strong remained on the police force for nearly a year before a Prince George County grand jury indicted him on September 10, 2020, for second-degree assault, police misconduct, and reckless endangerment during the arrest and ensuing injury to Ward-Blake. Interim Police Chief Hector Velez then suspended Strong from the police department pending trial of the matter.
Strong waived his right to a jury trial and elected to be tried by a judge.
Officer Found Guilty and Sentenced to 20 Years
On May 4, 2022, Prince George County Circuit Court Judge DaNeeka Cotton found the officer guilty of all three criminal charges brought against him. The judge set July 21, 2022, as the date for sentencing.
On July 21, 2022, Judge Cotton sentenced Officer Strong to a 20-year sentence requiring him to serve only one year in actual custody followed by three years of probation.
Blue Line Formed in Courtroom
Dozens of Prince George County police officers packed into the courtroom in solidarity with the convicted officer. Three officers told the judge that Strong was a dedicated family man, had a strong work effort, and was “collegial.”
It is not surprising that Prince George County police turned out in such numbers to support their convicted felon comrade. The county’s police department has a long history of using excessive and lethal force against people of color in the predominantly Black county.
But this police solidarity behind the use of excessive force has cost Prince George County millions of dollars paid out to victims of police misconduct. It also costs the reputation and goodwill of police nationwide, preventing them from doing their job effectively and escalating tensions in the communities where they work.
Tax Dollars Pay the Price of Police Misconduct
Over the past decade, the county has paid out $54 million to settle cases of police misconduct, with 13 percent of that involving officers with multiple complaints against them.
These kinds of civil damages are not unusual for the tri-districts of Prince George County, the District of Columbia, and Fairfax, Virginia.
The D.C. district paid out $91 million in the decade between 2010 and 2020, with 8 percent of that going to cases involving officers with multiple complaints, while Fairfax paid out $6 million during the same period as Prince George County, with 15 percent of that going to cases involving the same officers in multiple complaints.
These lawsuit settlements demonstrate that cities and counties are willing to pay for police misconduct in the name of public safety. Police misconduct is actually a manifestation of systemic racism because most police misconduct cases involve white police officers abusing people of color.
Racism is also thriving in police departments. In June 2021, Prince George County paid out $2.3 million to black and Latinx officers for institutional discrimination. The county also agreed to pay the attorneys representing the officers $250,00 in legal fees and $5 million in attorney fees. The officers had charged that the Prince George County Police Department was a culture of racism and retaliation.
In September 2020, Prince George County settled a lawsuit for $20 million in which a black police officer named Michael Owen shot a black man named William Green six times as he sat handcuffed in the front seat of a police car. This fatal encounter, which occurred in January 2020, came on the heels of the officer being involved in two back-to-back excessive force complaints. Owen has been charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, first-degree assault, and the use of a firearm in a crime of violence. He has remained in jail pending trial.
Inherent Racism in Hiring Policy Stokes Misconduct
Prince George County is 64 percent black and 24 percent of other people of color. Yet 43 percent of the county’s roughly 1500 police officers are white, with three-fourths of the ranking officers being white.
Therein lies the problem: police departments with disproportionate numbers of white police officers who believe they have a sworn duty to “protect and serve” white communities while ensuring that black communities are controlled with excessive, military-style lethal force.
There is no magic cure for systemic racism, and that disease infects Prince George County policing just as it does every police department in the nation. Officers involved in the Murder of George Floyd have been sentenced in both state and federal courts for their racist violence and inhumane indifference to the plight of the Black man who pled for his right to breathe. Derek Chauvin, the officer than kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes has been sentence to 22 years in both state and federal court. Other officers involved in the killing of Mr. Floyd have received criminal sentences for violating his civil right ranging from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years in federal prison.
The only cure from the chronic disease of systemic racism in policing comes from the accountability found in criminal charges against bad cops and civil penalties against the institutions that hit the bottom line of the county budget.