Maryland officer to serve one year in prison for arresting paralyzed man

Prince George’s County Police Officer Bryant Strong was sentenced Thursday to a year in prison followed by three years probation for his actions during a 2019 traffic stop that left Demonte Ward-Blake paralyzed from the neck at the feet.

Strong, 29, was found guilty in May of second-degree assault, misconduct in the office and reckless endangerment – ​​all misdemeanors – during a trial before Circuit Court Judge DaNeeka V .Cotton.

At Strong’s sentencing hearing on Thursday, the courtroom was packed with about 50 people, many of them police personnel present to support him. Three Prince George officers who had worked alongside Strong and developed friendships with him over the years spoke on his behalf, saying he was collegial, had a strong work ethic and was dedicated to his family and his young son.

Maryland officer guilty of assault and misconduct in arrest that left man paralyzed

Civil rights attorney Malcolm Ruff spoke on behalf of Ward-Blake’s family, whom he represents in a federal civil lawsuit against the county and Strong. Ruff told the judge that Ward-Blake was a beloved and gregarious 24-year-old before the traffic stop, but his paralysis forced him into a wheelchair and caused him excruciating pain.

Ward-Blake died late last year aged 26 from injuries he sustained in an unrelated shooting.

Cotton said she spent a lot of time thinking about Strong’s case and weighing why she found him guilty. The judge said she reviewed the nature of the charges and the extent of Ward’s injuries; the impact on his family and community; and the fact that Strong had no criminal history.

“This is clearly a defendant who has a strong support system,” the judge said.

Cotton acknowledged the “tremendous responsibility” of law enforcement to keep communities safe. But she said officers also have a duty to protect the community’s trust, and when that trust is broken, “that’s an awesome failure too.”

The judge sentenced Strong to a total of 20 years suspended except one, meaning he could serve that sentence at a later date if he is found guilty of violating the terms of his probation. Strong’s attorney, Shaun Owens, had asked the judge to postpone the detention of the officer pending appeal. Cotton denied this, along with a request for house arrest.

Ward-Blake’s mother, Rena Ward, lowered her head as she listened in the courtroom alongside community organizers and other women affected by police violence. Ward said she was disappointed that Strong was not sentenced to more prison time, but that she had to “surrender him to God.”

“If he were here,” she said of her son,[the sentencing] probably would have been stiffer.

The $75 million wrongful death lawsuit his family filed in February is still ongoing.

Ward-Blake was arrested October 17, 2019, for expired tags. During the stop, a Prince George police officer pulled his gun from its holster, which infuriated Ward-Blake because his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter was in the back seat. Strong was among a group of other officers who quickly arrived on the scene.

Although Ward-Blake complied with all of the officers’ commands, including when he was detained, handcuffed and seated on the sidewalk, he verbally reprimanded the officers, according to videos of the traffic stop and testimony at trial.

Because Ward-Blake kept screaming, Strong arrested him for disorderly conduct and accompanied him to the side of his cruiser, where he performed a body search.

At trial, Strong’s prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed on what happened next.

Prosecutors argued that Strong, fed up with Ward-Blake’s swearing, snapped and slammed the man face-first into the concrete in a maneuver called “dismantling.” The state said the action constituted excessive force.

Strong’s defense attorneys, however, said Ward-Blake tried to flee from police while Strong searched him. They argued that the men fell to the ground together in a struggle and that Ward-Blake’s paralysis was the result of a tragic accident.

At trial, Cotton dismissed the defense theory and said Strong “did not act as a reasonable officer would.” She called his actions “excessive” and “unwarranted”.

She repeated this argument at sentencing.

Cotton, however, did not consider Strong’s history of using force with others. Prosecutors presented evidence during the hearing regarding a previously undisclosed incident from November 2018 — a year before Ward-Blake was crippled — when Strong wrongfully detained a person who fit a description of a robbery suspect. The man, according to prosecutors, protested the arrest. Strong threw him to the ground, handcuffed him, and punched him repeatedly, an action that the police department’s internal investigation later found excessive.

Prosecutors argued that this showed behavior the judge should consider before convicting Strong. But Cotton disagreed, saying it was an administrative matter, not a criminal one, and therefore irrelevant.

Strong’s police powers remain suspended until the police department’s Internal Affairs office completes its own investigation into the traffic stop.

Strong’s supporters watched from the gallery – many, including his father, in tears – as he hugged his lawyer and removed his suit jacket, tie and button-up shirt. Then a bailiff put handcuffs around his wrists and took him out of the courtroom.

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