Mark A. Cowden was a bad cop long before he assaulted an arrestee, Ryan Hamrick, on January 27, 2015. He spent twenty-six years with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department in New Cumberland, West Virginia—fourteen of those years as a sergeant or lieutenant.
In a February 16, 2018 decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to two prior incidents of police brutality Cowden engaged in before the January 2015 incident:
“ … The first prior incident occurred when Cowden and two other officers responded to a report of a domestic disturbance involving Clayton Settle (the Settle incident). On that occasion, without warning or provocation, Cowden used the rim of his hat to hit Settle in the nose, causing Settle’s nose to bleed. Soon after, Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher entered the home and observed Cowden yelling at Settle, forcing Settle to the ground and wrestling with him ‘rather roughly.’
“At the time of these events, Settle had not engaged in any aggressive conduct toward Cowden. Seeking to end the confrontation, Fletcher yelled at Cowden to ‘back off’ and gabbed Cowden by the shoulder to pull him back. Fletcher testified that Cowden’s ‘face was in a rage,’ and that he insisted that Settle had attempted to ‘head butt’ Cowden. However, the other officers who were present during the incident did not corroborate Cowden’s version of the events.
Bad Cop with History of Official Abuse of Power
The second incident occurred at a local nightclub following a concert. Two officers arrived at the scene where they were met by William Hall, one of the people involved in the incident, who, as the officers described, was “being a little mouthy.” That’s when the “Hoss” showed up. The Fourth Circuit explained what happened next:
“ … Cowden arrived at the nightclub and either shoved or grabbed Hall by the shoulder. When Cowden pushed Hall, Hall point a finger at Cowden, and that ‘you need to learn to show respect. You need to learn how to talk somebody.’ In response, Cowden shoved Hall into Hall’s minivan and punched him in the face. When Hall tried to get out of the van, Cowden threw Hall ‘face-down’ on the ground. As Hall was positioned on his side in a fetal position with both hands covering his face, Cowden punched Hall in the back of the head. According to one of the other officers, Hall was not resisting and did not present a threat warranting that level of force. Cowden, however, continued to maintain that Hall had hit him.”
Cowden joined the sheriff’s department in 1990. He became a sergeant in 2002. Perhaps it was the power of rank that instilled in the Hoss the cowardly desire to physically abuse restrained arrestees without provocation.
Unusually Hostile Beats Drunk Suspect
Whatever the reason, Cowden, according to fellow officer, Jeffery McIntyre, was in an “unusually hostile” mood that early January 27, 2015 morning when Cowden’s path intersected with Hamrick’s.
Several hours earlier on January 26, at about 11:00 p.m., West Virginia State Trooper Michael Hoder stopped Hamrick’s vehicle for speeding and a taillight violation. Hoder administered a field sobriety test to Hamrick which he failed. As Hoder attempted to arrest Hamrick, the DWI suspect resisted, engaging the officer in a physical confrontation. Hoder subdued the recalcitrant suspect and completed the arrest by handcuffing Hamrick. The scuffle left Hamrick with a “goose egg” on his forehead and a bloody nose or cheek. The Fourth Circuit noted that “Hoder did not suffer any significant injuries as a result of the encounter with Hamrick.’”
The intoxicated arrestee was escorted to jail where a pissed-off cop with a history of physically abusing restrained arrestees awaited him. The arresting officers had notified Cowden at the Hancock County Jail that they were bringing Hamrick in for booking, explaining there had been some minor problems in the arrest. That’s all it took to fuel Cowden’s short, angry mood.
“[Hamrick’s] not going to act that way with us,” Cowden told the fellow deputies, “this is our house, play by our rules.”
Cowden’s rules, of course, were that the slightest sign of attitude or resistance by the arrestee would result in some form of physical abuse.
The escorting officers said while Hamrick was yelling during the drive to the jail, the arrestee did not offer “any further resistance and did not speak or act in a threatening manner” by the time they arrived at the jail.
Cop with History of Abuse Easily Triggered
When he arrived at the jail, Hamrick’s hands were secured behind his back. Cowden held Hamrick’s arms as he escorted him inside the building. Although Hamrick displayed, as the Fourth Circuit observed, “a loud and drunken demeanor,” the collection of officers that surrounded him did not perceive the arrestee as a threat inasmuch as he was restrained and five officers were present.
Cowden, on the other hand, viewed the situation differently. He saw Hamrick as a “threat.” And when Hamrick attempted to pull away from Cowden’s grip in what the officers said was a non-threatening manner and was done because he was “more or less [in] pain,” Cowden grabbed the arrestee, pulled him toward the elevator, and slammed him against the wall.
That manhandling was not enough for Cowden. His testosterone induced rage made him grab Hamrick, who was facing the wall handcuffed and not resisting, by the head, yank it back, and
slam his head and face into the wall.
“[This] is our house” and “you play by our rules,” Cowden yelled at Hamrick.
The appeals court quoted one officer as saying “Cowden’s tone of voice and use of force indicated he was losing control.” The officer added that he was in a “state of shock” by Cowden’s display of brutality. Another officer said that Cowden’s behavior made him “uneasy.”
The officers were unprepared for what happened next. When the elevator door opened, the Fourth Circuit said “Cowden grabbed Hamrick by the throat, knocked him by the head into the corner of the elevator, and yelled at him about resisting law enforcement officer.
Fellow Officers Intercede to Stop Abuse
One fellow officer had seen enough. He put one hand between Cowden and Hamrick and the other hand between Hamrick’s head and the wall, telling Cowden to “back off.”
“At this point,” the Fourth Circuit said, “Hamrick had a gash above his left eye and a cut above his nose. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth, and there was blood on the floor and the walls of the elevator and hallway. Hamrick received medical care for his injuries at the HSCO station and later received additional care at the hospital. The total cost of Hamrick’s medical care was $3,044.”
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department began investigating the case. Four months after the Hamrick incident, May 2015, Cowden retired from the sheriff’s department.
The proverbial wheels of justice indeed do move slow.
The following year, May 2016, the Hoss announced he was running against Sheriff Fletcher for the county’s top law enforcement job. The Hoss was the only candidate in the Republican primary.
Perhaps it was this display of official arrogance that fueled the Justice Department’s investigation into Cowden’s January 2015 actions.
Criminal Violation for Deprivation of Civil Rights
On June 24, 2016, a federal grand jury in Wheeling indicted Cowden under 18 U.S.C. § 242 for violating Hamrick’s civil rights and knowingly making a false statement to impede a federal investigation under 18 U.S.C. § 1519.
The federal indictment did not slow down the Hoss. He rode Donald Trump’s tail winds in West Virginia and told everyone who would listen that God would bring him victory.
In an October 2, 2016 Facebook post, Cowden told Sheriff Fletcher to “keep it coming because I am solidly grounded in Christ my Lord. Your political smears that are direct attacks on me and my family roll off us like water off a duck’s rear end. It’s getting close, Oct. 11th, when their [sic] will be a trial on this whole matter. It will [be] a day of reckoning where the WHOLE truth will come out! It will be a day where light wins over darkness. God is good and He will not be denied his due!”
A federal jury on October 16, 2016 did not hear the call of the Lord. They acquitted Cowden on the making false statement charge but convicted him of violating Hamrick’s civil rights during the January 2015 booking process.
And the good folks of Hancock County did not pay much attention to Cowden’s invocation of God’s work. He was handily defeated by Democrat Sheriff Fletcher.
Following a presentence investigation, U.S. District Court Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr., Northern District of West Virginia, sentenced Cowden to 18 months in a federal prison on January 9, 2017.
Federal Prosecutors Attempt to Regain Public Trust
“[Mark Cowden] abused his power as a law enforcement official, using excessive force to harm a person in his custody,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said after sentencing. “Actions like these violate federal law and erode public trust. This conviction and sentence send a clear message that the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute officer misconduct and protect the integrity of our justice system.”
In a November 24, 2016 Facebook post, Cowden and his followers created a petition urging newly-elected President Trump to pardon the disgraced cop. Fifteen months later President Trump has not heeded the pardon calls.
The Hoss remains in a federal prison.
It may be that the president is too overwhelmed trying to figure out if he can pardon himself to worry about the Hoss.
Hamrick does not care about either one. Four days after Cowden was sentenced, Hamrick filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Cowden and county officials.
West Virginia taxpayers will pick up the tab for Hamrick’s lawsuit.