Tuesday, April 27, 2010



Irregular News and Views from the Bottom of the Criminal Justice System


April 27, 2010 by David Walsh-Little

Here is the critical question. What would have happened if a student hadn’t videotaped the incident and distributed the tape for all to see? We would have had opposing versions of the night Duke University lost to the Terrapins in college basketball.

College students would have proclaimed that they were celebrating a basketball victory. Blocking streets would have been described as a form of harmless public partying when the police came upon them and beat them without provocation. In response, the Prince George’s Police Chief would have vehemently defended his officers as public servants. There would have been no reason for officers to attack someone without provocation. College students shouldn’t be disrupting the public safety, especially after a few too many drinks. In any event the police acted reasonably and with appropriate discretion in a difficult situation.

There would have been talk of the “official” video footage from a University of Maryland camera. As we now know, that footage was originally disclosed with ninety minutes of tape missing. Now most of that “missing” footage has been located with still a three minute gap in video. The tape was originally pulled to determine whether any students acted inappropriately- not to review police conduct.

In all likelihood, the mainstream media would have focused only on the conduct of the college students. Given similar rioting in the past, the arrests and prosecutions would have been lauded as finally cracking down on rowdy young people. Claims that police officers beat students unnecessarily and then creatively told lies in court documents to support prosecutions would have been dismissed as ludicrous. But that is what happened.

In the “unofficial” video a student is seen skipping along a roadside barrier when he is attacked by a group of three police officers in riot gear. The student, John McKenna, had no weapon, threw no punch, and did not take an aggressive stance. He was beaten to the ground with batons and then beaten some more. The student was then charged with the felony of assaulting a police officer. The facts, as described in the criminal complaint, are complete fiction and later dismissed once the student recorded video surfaced.

How often does this happen, when there is no video to memorialize the truth? In the College Park incident we have seen police officers suspended, announced investigations by the Maryland State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an apology by the police chief from Prince George’s County. It is hard to see how any of this would have happened without the video. College students would have been forced to stand trial for crimes they did not commit.

Much commentary has been made over college students acting irresponsibly by destroying public property that night in College Park, and that is fair enough. The results of any sporting event should never precipitate the irresponsible behavior some students exhibited. But, three officers beat an unarmed person, and another officer lied about it to charge that person with a crime. We only know the truth because one student taped the incident. How often does it happen when no witnesses and no cameras are available? It is a question all of us should be asking.


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