Prince George's state's attorney investigates possible charges against county police officers
Police cruiser video shows traffic stop that ended with violence
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Prince George's County police have suspended two officers following the release of a police cruiser camera video that shows the officers using force on a man during an Oct. 19 traffic stop.
The video, released Tuesday, shows Officers John Wynkoop and Scott Wilson using pepper spray and batons on driver Rafael Rodriguez, 30, of College Park, as he repeatedly asks them to give him a traffic ticket and let him go after Wynkoop stopped him for having illegal lights on his 1994 Chevy sedan.
"Please! Please! They're trying to kill me!" Rodriguez can be heard screaming after one of the officers began hitting him with a baton.
Rodriguez, who had been charged by the officers with second-degree assault and resisting arrest, could not be reached for comment.
"The officers had lied in the charging documents," said Sharon Weidenfeld, an investigator for Rodriguez' defense attorney, Terrell N. Roberts III of Riverdale. "They said Mr. Rodriguez balled up his fist and punched [an officer] in the stomach."
She said the charges were dropped Friday before Rodriguez went to court to face the charges because of the defense's subpoena of the video.
"[The officer] was trying to give a traffic citation to Mr. Rodriguez, and he wanted to have a conversation about that, and Officer Wynkoop didn't want to have a conversation," Weidenfeld said.
Though he appears to repeatedly resist officers' orders to get out of the car, Rodriguez seemed calm and polite through most of the stop and did not appear to strike back, the video shows.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the video spurred prosecutors in his office to drop the charges and that they are now investigating possible charges against the officers.
"We are looking into whether there should be a criminal component to this, too," Ivey said.
"We dismissed the charges as an office because we had a chance to see a video that did not jibe with what was stated by the officers," said state's attorney spokesman Ramon Korionoff.
The original traffic citations against Rodriguez were also dropped on Friday.
Wynkoop and Wilson, who had been with the force three and two years, respectively, have been suspended with pay while the investigation continues. Officials announced the suspensions in a statement that asked the public to reserve judgment until the internal investigation is finished.
"Once I saw the tape, I ordered the suspension," said Police Chief Roberto Hylton, who declined to give his thoughts on the way the stop was conducted. "It raises a whole lot of issues."
Wynkoop, who normally works out of Bowie, had been working as a contract police officer for the city of College Park during the stop, and Wilson had joined him as backup, police said. The officers could not be reached by phone for comment.
The incident dealing with Rodriguez, who is Hispanic, raised concerns among the Hispanic community. Local Hispanic leaders said Wednesday that the police department's swift suspension of the officers involved is a step forward in regaining the community's trust.
"I think the chief did the right thing, and we strongly support his decision and we need to have a full investigation," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Silver Spring-based Casa of Maryland, a nonprofit that provides aid to local immigrant residents. "He has been promising our community and the African-American community that he will work with us in community policing."
"It is very, very difficult to regain the trust of the community if that kind of incident happens and there are no actions," Torres said.
Local legislators had mixed reactions to the incident Wednesday.
"I am shaken. This is so disturbing," said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Dist. 21) of College Park after watching the footage. "They're abusing him and hitting him. They knocked him to the ground. He's running away from them. He's running for his life."
Peña-Melnyk said she supports suspending and investigating the officers.
County Councilman William Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville joined with Hylton to urge calm.
"I am not an expert in police protocol, but looking at the video I cannot see what direct actions on behalf of Mr. Rodriguez merited the response taken by our police officers," Campos said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. " … I will leave it in the hands of our police investigators and I have confidence that the proper recommendations to deal with these actions, if found to be out of character, will be taken appropriately."
The traffic stop video comes two months after the U.S. Department of Justice lifted a six-year monitoring of the county police department for patterns of police brutality and abuse stemming back to 1999. Part of that agreement of county policy overhauls required the department to install police cruiser cameras.
FBI Spokesman Richard J. Wolf confirmed that the Baltimore bureau has requested a copy of the traffic stop footage and is "monitoring" the county internal investigation.
"We're going to monitor their progress," Wolf said. "It only makes sense that we would get a copy of the videotape."
Staff Writer Jonah Schuman contributed to this story.
E-mail Daniel Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.