Civil Liberties

'I Didn't Do Anything, And I Got My Ass Kicked' -- The Unfolding Police Scandal Over Videotaped Student Beating

University of Maryland police brutality case is a sobering reminder that an officer's word can carry tremendous weight against that of an average person.

A shocking YouTube video showing Prince George's County police beating an unarmed University of Maryland student has met with national outrage this week. The captured footage shows a student skipping in the street, where post-game crowds mill about celebrating their school's basketball win over the reviled Duke Blue Devils. The student, John “Jack” McKenna, is waving his arms, evidently getting a little too close to the police and their horses; two police officers in riot gear come charging at him with batons, throwing him up against a wall, and joined by a third, viciously beat him until he is left lying on the sidewalk.

Since the video's release, two police officers have been suspended and an FBI investigation is underway. Accountability appears to be at hand. "Everybody on the scene that night is under review right now," Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey told reporters this week. Yet numerous other students claim they were beaten by police that night; they just don't have video footage to prove it. In McKenna’s case, it was just by chance that an electrical engineering major named Ben Winter decided to take his new camera with him when he went out to watch the inevitable mayhem following the University of Maryland's win over Duke on March 3.

"I saw a scuffle, and I immediately pointed my lens at it, but it wasn't until after I reviewed the footage … that the reality of what was going on sunk in, Winter told the UMD student newspaper, The Diamondback, this week. "I was incensed the first time that I really watched it."

It was only because of Winter's video that the charges against McKenna were dropped. (In addition to being savagely beaten, he was also arrested.) McKenna, who suffered a head wound that "required eight staples to close," according to CNN, as well as a "concussion, a badly swollen arm and bruises elsewhere on his body," faced charges of disorderly conduct and assault on a police officer -- a serious crime.

Without the video, even these injuries would not likely have raised eyebrows. Police brutality -- and the false charges that come with it -- almost always goes unpunished. The report filed by the arresting officers reveals a bald-faced lie told in order to justify the arrests. The Statement of Probable Cause, written by Officer Sean McAleavey, describes McKenna ("Arrested 1") and another student ("Arrested 2") as running through the street, screaming. "Due to their disorderly behavior, a crowd on the sidewalk began to form and become unruly," it reads.

As Officer Ardozini #246 and Officer Jones #177 from the Maryland National Capital Park Police mounted unit attempted to regain order, Arrested 1 and arrested 2 struck those officers and their horses causing minor injuries. Arrested 1 and Arrested 2 were both kicked by the horses and sustained minor injuries.

As the video shows, in fact, McKenna did not come close to striking the officers or their horses.

The second student whose charges have been dropped, "Arrested #2," otherwise known as Benjamin Donat (his name is spelled Domat in the original report), was also badly beaten. He does not appear in the video at all. He and McKenna do not know each other.

Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator working with the attorney representing both McKenna and Donat, describes the charging documents as "a total fabrication" and "part of a cover-up by the police department."

'I Didn't Do Anything, And I Got My Ass Kicked'

The incident is a sobering reminder that the word of the police can carry tremendous weight against that of an average person, unless there is overwhelming proof to refute it.

Until the video came out, those students who complained of police brutality were ignored, even as the student newspaper reported on several of the incidents.

"Since the chaos of March 4, students have told anyone who would listen about how police mistreated them and threatened them with further punishment if they told anyone their stories," the Diamondback editors wrote in a staff editorial this week. "Hundreds of other students saw the violence, and most condemned it. But no one listened."

In fact, as editors point out, the unedited video was on YouTube -- and on the campus newspaper's Web site -- for a full month before it caught the attention of anyone willing to take it seriously.

Rioting is not an unprecedented phenomenon at the University of Maryland, whose basketball fans have been known to wreak havoc in College Park following both wins or losses -- particularly when Duke is involved. News footage from the night of the basketball game showed rowdy students boasting street signs uprooted from the sidewalk and, on YouTube, videos labeled "UMD Riot" show fans burning trash and creating chaos.

But as in McKenna's case, these students are not necessarily the ones who were arrested. Andrew Godzuk was one of some 28 students taken into custody that night. He told the Diamondback he had gone out to get a slice of pizza when he encountered Maryland fans filling the streets met by an army of police officers in riot gear. "I was just walking back like [police] said to," Godzuk said in an article published on March 5. "They tackled me to the ground and were hitting me in the back and on the legs. I wasn't causing any harm to anything or anyone."

The same March 5 report quoted other students saying that simply asking the police questions was met with violence. "He punched me, kicked me in the side and pressed my face onto the ground with his boot," a student named Peter Kramer said of one police officer, after he'd asked the officer's colleague how to get around the police blockade. "I didn't do anything, and I got my ass kicked."

Another student, Santiago Bortman, said he was beaten when he tried to ask a police officer a similar question. "He didn't even answer me. He just hit me with his shield in the face. Once I was on the ground, he kept beating me with his night stick."

Both Kramer and Bortman said the officers threatened the students would be held in custody longer if they reported their injuries.

Unless people are willing to believe that College Park students are uniquely disrespectful and dishonest, there seems to be a culture of violence among Prince George's County Police.

Not only has the U.S. Department of Justice monitored the police department for the past six years due to its record, just last month, Prince George's County settled a lawsuit for $125,000 filed by a man who was beaten by police in 2008. According to the local Gazette, "Rafael Rodriguez was arrested for assaulting police after he was stopped in College Park."

"Police cruiser video of the incident showed Rodriguez being beaten by the officers but did not show Rodriguez hitting the officers. The charges against Rodriguez were dropped."

In a different case, in 2008 Prince George's County prosecutors were forced to drop charges against a 26-year-old man who, according to the Washington Post, "was accused of helping his father assault an off-duty county police officer before the officer fatally shot the father."

In fact, two other witnesses said that the officer, Steven Jackson, "used his fist and police baton to beat the unarmed, unresisting [father]."

Nevertheless, in a press conference on Tuesday, Prince George's County Police Chief Roberto Hylton called the University of Maryland case an "isolated incident."

"We are a professional police department," he said. "and we are not going tolerate any inappropriate actions by our officers."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.