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Veteran's effort to help woman becomes a police brutality case

JESSICA BIDWELL/STARS AND STRIPES

By LYNH BUI | The Washington Post | Published: August 16, 2017

David Rogers had only wanted to help.

The Army veteran was taking a morning walk on doctor's orders when he came upon a woman locked out of her car. As Rogers fished for her trapped keys with a coat hanger, a man with a gun at his side appeared.

Quickly, the attempt to be a good Samaritan became a case of police brutality, Rogers said in court filings, when the armed man turned out to be an off-duty Prince George's County police officer who failed to properly identify himself as law enforcement and wrongfully grabbed Rogers.

In July, eight years after the encounter that damaged a delicate medical device implanted in Rogers' back, a Prince George's jury found the Maryland county, just outside the District of Columbia, liable for $850,000 in damages.

"This was someone who had secret- and top-secret security clearances," Rogers' attorney, Cary Hansel, said of his client, whose military service included working high-profile security details. "If it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us."

The county declined to comment on the verdict, saying the case is pending appeal. But according to the county's court filings, the officer involved mistook Rogers as a suspected car thief and denies ever touching him.

Rogers was never charged with a crime.

The police department investigated internally and found no wrongdoing, the court file shows. The officer, Cpl. John Ivey, remains with the department, according to Prince George's police. Ivey, when reached through the local police union, did not respond to a request for comment.

The wounds from Rogers' surgery were still fresh the morning of Sept. 3, 2009, 10 days after doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center embedded a spinal cord stimulator in the retired soldier's back to alleviate pain from service injuries.

As part of Rogers' recovery plan, he took a stroll through his Temple Hills neighborhood but stopped to help a young woman with her son at their locked car. Around 7:30 a.m., a man in a T-shirt with a gun approached. The stranger appeared "aggressive" and "angry," Rogers recalled in a letter of complaint to the police department.

"My first instinct told me he was going to attempt to rob us," Rogers wrote in his letter. "He asked me, in a loud tone, 'DO YOU STAY AROUND HERE?' "

Rogers said yes and asked the same of the stranger, who didn't answer, according to his letter.

"It was at that point that he started to walk and go right in my face," Rogers wrote. "I immediately left the hanger dangling in the car window."

Fearing that a confrontation could aggravate his surgical wounds or worse, Rogers walked away. He urged the woman to go back in her house.

"I know that police officers are supposed to identify themselves anytime they are acting in an official capacity, but he still had not identified himself as an officer of the law, nor a citizen by name," Rogers wrote.

Rogers again asked the man - who Rogers would later learn was Cpl. John Ivey - to identify himself. Ivey pointed to a marked Prince George's County police cruiser, Rogers said in his letter.

The officer came out to investigate suspicious activity after someone reported seeing Rogers jiggle the handle of a Ford Expedition in the neighborhood, court documents said. Rogers, who never saw a badge or identification from Ivey, was not convinced Ivey was a police officer.

Rogers tried to walk away again, and Ivey followed, grabbing and spinning Rogers in a takedown maneuver until he saw the medical tape and padding on Rogers's back, Hansel said.

" 'I am a wounded Warrior from Iraq and just had surgery, please don't [throw] me to the ground,' " Rogers told Ivey, according to his letter of complaint.

The officer then forced Rogers to sit on a curb until more police arrived, although Rogers told him that sitting would further rip the device just implanted in his body.

The county denied the allegations in court filings, saying officers did not use excessive force and had probable cause to stop Rogers. County attorneys said police "momentarily detained" Rogers before he was released because "his behavior appeared suspicious and a call had been received for a person attempting to break into a vehicle."

Ivey's girlfriend was walking her dog when she spotted Rogers grabbing the handle of a neighbor's vehicle, she said in court depositions. She told her boyfriend, who went out to confront Rogers, who said he never touched any car other than that of the woman he was helping.

Ivey said he asked Rogers where he lived, the officer said in court depositions, but was met with the questions, "Who are you?" and "Where do you live?"

"I stated to him it doesn't matter where I live at, and I'm Corporal Ivey with the Prince George's County Police Department," Ivey's deposition stated.

Ivey said he then pointed Rogers to his marked police cruiser.

"I didn't see any reason for him to complain against me for anything," Ivey said in his deposition. "I didn't touch him."

The officer's girlfriend "never observed Ivey forcibly grab or push Plaintiff down on the curb" and Rogers "did not appear to be in pain while seated on the curb," the county said in court filings.

The county and Ivey denied that an assault had occurred but, Hansel said, the medical damage made it clear that his client was manhandled.

"It takes a pretty severe jerking" to cause this kind of damage, said Hansel, adding that a medical expert from Walter Reed testified to that information during trial.

Hansel said officers had no right to touch Rogers because his client didn't refuse a specific order from police to stop or freeze. Even if his client did jiggle the car handle, the officer should have properly identified himself and asked Rogers to stop and wait. If Rogers had then refused the orders, the officer might have been allowed to lay a hand on Rogers, Hansel said.

Rogers endured three years of unnecessary pain - returning to the hospital every few months for readjustments and eventually another operation - until the damaged medical device was fixed, Hansel said.

"It shows the importance of why the police can't just put your hands on you and just spin you around," Hansel said. "They don't know who's pregnant, who's sick or who just had surgery."

Rogers said he felt mentally and physically abused by officers who ignored his cries of pain.

"I feel that any citizen attempting to assist a fellow citizen should not have to endure this type of harassment, mistreatment and degrading conduct," Rogers wrote, "from those sworn to uphold the law."

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