Of­fi­cer guilty of as­sault­ing woman

Md. po­lice vet­eran con­victed af­ter try­ing to roust home­less per­son

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY DREW GER­BER

A Prince Ge­orge’s County po­lice of­fi­cer was found guilty Tues­day of as­sault and of­fi­cial mis­con­duct for pulling a home­less woman by her ears and slap­ping her to roust her from sleep­ing in the door­way of a store.

Ge­orge Merkel, a cor­po­ral with about 15 years in the depart­ment, was con­victed dur­ing a two-day bench trial be­fore Prince Ge­orge’s County Cir­cuit Judge Dwight D. Jack­son.

Merkel’s at­tor­ney, Robert C. Bon­sib, de­clined to com­ment on the ver­dict. Merkel was placed on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave af­ter the Sept. 22, 2016, in­ci­dent.

In what he called “a dif­fi­cult case,” Jack­son said his ver­dict was guided by two events he deemed “some­what ex­tra­or­di­nary”: that Merkel’s ac­tions so both­ered fel­low of­fi­cers they re­ported them to su­per­vi­sors, and that the home­less woman, while in­co­her­ent, had her “sen­si­bil­i­ties of­fended,” ac­cord­ing to her tes­ti­mony.

Events be­gan about 1 a.m. that morn­ing when Merkel was on pa­trol and en­coun­tered the sleep­ing woman in front of a closed pawn­shop in Lan­ham, at­tor­neys

in the case said.

Dur­ing the trial, the two other of­fi­cers who were also present tes­ti­fied that Merkel re­peat­edly yelled at the vic­tim to “Get the f--out of my town” and pro­ceeded to yank the woman up from the ground by her ears be­fore slap­ping her with an open hand on the cheek. Both of those of­fi­cers de­scribed the woman as dis­tant and un­re­spon­sive and said Merkel hit her hard enough to cause her to stag­ger a few steps and grab her face. The woman then at­tempted to grab her slip­pers and cup of soda, which the of­fi­cers said Merkel kicked over be­fore leav­ing.

Merkel’s use of force left Of­fi­cer Noel An­dreas, who had joined the squad a few months ear­lier, feel­ing “shocked,” he tes­ti­fied.

Af­ter leav­ing the in­ci­dent, An­dreas said he met with a dif­fer­ent of­fi­cer who had been at the scene and with other squad mem­bers and that they told a su­per­vi­sor about what had hap­pened, ac­cord­ing to An­dreas’s tes­ti­mony.

Merkel told the court that while on pa­trol that morn­ing, he had called the dis­patcher ask­ing for backup about mak­ing con­tact with a “sus­pi­cious per­son” and said he knew a nearby con­ve­nience store had re­ported prob­lems with ag­gres­sive pan­han­dlers and theft.

He said he started his ex­change with the home­less woman in a calm tone, to get her to move along, but was met with her “blank, hol­low stare.” He said he then be­gan speak­ing more harshly, in­clud­ing curs­ing, as a tac­tic to get her to leave the store­front.

When the woman con­tin­ued to ig­nore his or­ders and re­peated his words in a con­fused man­ner, Merkel tes­ti­fied, he drew her to her feet by pulling at a pres­sure point un­der her jaw in a tech­nique he said was taught in train­ing, and also used what he called a light slap to get her at­ten­tion.

Merkel’s at­tor­ney ar­gued that the strike did not in­jure the woman, that the ac­tions were not ma­li­cious or venge­ful and were an ap­pro­pri­ate use of force in pur­suit of en­forc­ing the law. Bon­sib also ar­gued that even if Merkel had mis­judged or acted at odds with stan­dard train­ing, the is­sue did not rise to a crim­i­nal level.

That view of stan­dard pro­ce­dure was coun­tered by Sgt. Wil­liam Glea­son, a county of­fi­cer who tes­ti­fied as a use-of-force ex­pert on be­half of the pros­e­cu­tion. Glea­son said strik­ing a pas­sively re­sist­ing per­son, or a per­son who is ig­nor­ing or­ders but not phys­i­cally re­sist­ing them, does not fol­low depart­ment pol­icy.

Stan­dard pro­to­col in a sit­u­a­tion like Merkel’s would be to re­peat ver­bal com­mands and es­cort the per­son by the arm away from the area, Glea­son said, while ac­knowl­edg­ing many use-of­force de­ci­sions must be made at the of­fi­cer’s dis­cre­tion.

Merkel was com­mended by the depart­ment in 2009, re­ceiv­ing a gold medal of valor for pulling some­one from a burn­ing ve­hi­cle, county po­lice said.

As­sis­tant State’s At­tor­ney Joel T. Pat­ter­son said that this case dif­fered from a typ­i­cal po­lice mat­ter in that rather than a ci­ti­zen’s com­plaint, the case be­gan when of­fi­cers with the same train­ing as Merkel re­ported he had gone too far.

And be­fore the ver­dict was ren­dered, Pat­ter­son told the court, “Say­ing the ends jus­tify the means, that’s not how the law works.”

A sen­tenc­ing hear­ing is sched­uled Jan. 5.

Ge­orge Merkel’s use of force left of­fi­cer Noel An­dreas, who had joined the squad a few months ear­lier, feel­ing “shocked,” he tes­ti­fied.

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