HAGERSTOWN, Md. - A Maryland police chief is defending the actions taken by his officers following an incident where a 15-year-old girl was pepper sprayed by police, but the girl and her family tell a different story about what happened. Body camera video released by the Hagerstown Police Department shows the incident, which happened after the girl's bicycle allegedly hit a car.
The girl faces charges of disorderly conduct, second-degree assault, possession of marijuana and failure to obey a traffic device. The incident has prompted disagreement about whether the officers acted properly. Footage from two different officers' body cameras was released late Wednesday. The video, which is over 14 minutes long in total, was posted by the police department to its Facebook page.
Hagerstown Police Chief Victor Brito held a news conference Thursday to discuss the incident and the actions taken by the officers involved. He said the girl repeatedly refused to cooperate with police who were trying to question her about the accident, and find her parent or parents to authorize her refusal to receive medical treatment from paramedics on the scene.
"Officers throughout this country and our community are often placed in very difficult decisions each and every day," said Brito. "It's their job to act in the interest of our community, and they are trained to make those decisions to the best of their ability. The officers applied their training and responded within the guidelines of the Hagerstown Police Department and policy, and used the appropriate level of force under the circumstances to gain control of a juvenile who was not being cooperative with us, as you've probably seen in the body-worn camera videos."
Chief Brito said having body-worn camera footage is important in building trust between law enforcement and members of the community. He says he released the video proactively in an effort to get the whole story out, and to show the community exactly how the officers behaved.
According to Brito, on September 18 around 2:30 p.m., a 911 call was made by a driver who said his car had been struck by a bicyclist, and he was afraid that she might have been hurt. Police and fire crews were called to the scene as a result of that call.
Upon arriving, police determined that the girl was riding her bike, and the car she struck had a green light. Brito said the teenager kept going despite not having the right of way, and hit the car in the driver's side door.
Brito said officers responded to where the teenager was, and she refused medical treatment by fire and rescue crews. Officers tried to talk to her about the accident and tried to get her identity. He says they had the authority to investigate as they do with any traffic accident.
According to Brito, the girl initially drove away when police asked her for her information so they could notify her parents as to what happened. He says she became uncooperative.
"She became assaultive and combative regarding that particular situation," Chief Brito said.
Both officers were well over 200 pounds, Brito said, adding that they used restraint and tried to deescalate the situation. Any individual involved in an accident, regardless of their age, has an obligation to make their identity known, Brito said.
"(It was) the last thing we wanted to do," Brito said. "The officers are trained to use the minimal amount of force necessary to bring any situation of force under control."
In the video, Brito says, the officers in the video are seen asking her repeatedly to calm down. He says they never took her to the ground, recognizing that she is a juvenile. Brito said his officers placed her against the wall, and did not slam her against the wall as some reports have indicated.
"At no time did they take her to the ground," he said. "They recognized the fact that she is a juvenile. We didn't want to use that level of force. They were professional in their renderings, in their voices and their interactions."
Brito said the video from the first camera ends when it was kicked off by the girl. In the second video, officers are seen carrying the girl, and Brito says the way they were carrying her -- one in front and one in back -- was according to procedure.
Brito says as they put her into the police cruiser, one officer said multiple times, "let me help you." He also says the teen had "choice words" for the officer, telling him, "I hope you die."
The teen was pepper sprayed, Brito says, after the girl still would not comply with the officers' requests to put her legs into the car so they could close the door. He says the officer sprayed her only after he asked her several times to stop. Brito says the officer sprayed only once, as department policy states.
"Every time we use a level of force, regardless whether we are justified or not, we lose," said Brito.
Brito continued on to say that when a situation can be resolved by communication, they win, but sometimes their actions don't look pretty.
TEEN, FAMILY SPEAK OUT ABOUT INCIDENT
Attorney Robin Ficker and the girl's family held a news conference late Thursday afternoon, where she herself read a statement she had prepared. Her identity still has not been released.
Ficker called her "every mother's daughter," and said what happened to her should never happen to anyone's daughter. According to Ficker, the car hit her and knocked her to the ground, where she was unconscious for about two minutes. Afterwards, Ficker said, she wanted to go home, and she repeatedly told the rescuers she was fine.
Ficker also said she told police she was okay before riding off on her bike, but officers grabbed her and physically handcuffed her, but never told her why they were doing it.
The girl is an honor student and soccer player, Ficker told reporters. He went on to describe how her arms were pulled up high behind her and she was flung into a cement wall. Contrary to the story told by police, he said she was dragged by one handcuff, which is how her shoe came off -- not because she kicked the camera.
Ficker went on to add that police slammed the car door and "administered a little sweet justice, or to give her a rough ride" when she was sprayed. He claimed she was not buckled into a seatbelt, as is protocol.
While police say she was only sprayed one time, Ficker and the girl's family say it was actually four times. Ficker said she was sprayed once before the door was closed, twice through the window after the door was closed, and again later after the officers were inside, through the partition. One of those sprays, they claim, went into her mouth.
The girl's family says she was taken to the police station and later picked up by her mother. Her father later took her to the hospital where she was treated, and her family says she was diagnosed with a possible concussion and numerous other injuries.
"This is one of the worst cases of police brutality that I have seen in more than 40 years of practicing law," Ficker said.
The girl read a prepared statement recounting her story. She started off by explaining how the accident happened from her perspective, saying she told fire crews about 30 times she was okay. She said she was grabbed by the backpack by an officer, and at the time she was dizzy and confused about what was going on.
According to the girl, she kept being told she was "being detained," but she claims the officer wouldn't tell her why when she asked.
"I'll tell you all my information, just get off of me," the girl said she told them.
She says when she was put up against the wall, she hit her head again and started crying. The teenager said she was having a panic attack, and couldn't really hear anything that was being asked of her. She also says when she stood up and was being walked to the police car, she blacked out and collapsed.
The girl went on to explain that officers forced her into the car while yelling at her to calm down. She claims she told them she couldn't because she was having a panic attack. She said she screamed for a black officer named Zack, whom she knows, but the officers refused to call him.
After that, she says she was sprayed twice, once in her mouth. She says she could not breath, and the windows were rolled up. At the police station, she claims she was again slammed against a car, and put in a cell once inside. At one point, she described being asked by an officer at the station, "Do you think it would hurt more if I was to punch you in the face, instead of getting maced?" She said she asked if he would really punch her in the face, and she says the officer nodded yes.
The girl's mother, who is white, also spoke out at the news conference. The girl's father, whom their attorney said is black, was not able to attend because he was at work. Her mother described picking her up from the police station, saying she was never asked for identification and was never given any information about charges against her daughter, who just turned 15 in August.
Her mother did say she could have handled the situation better, but that she was probably scared and that with everything that is going on in society today, not everyone is trusting of police. She also said that if the officer her daughter knows, who is black, had been there, things might have been different.
"I feel it could have been handled better on her part, but I don't know that she was even in the right frame of mind," the girl's mother said.
Ficker said he expects criminal charges to be brought against the girl, which they will "defend vigorously."
MAYOR INTERRUPTS FAMILY NEWS CONFERENCE
Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts attended the family's news conference, and that led to a disruption that ultimately put an end to it. As the family and their attorney were taking questions from reporters, Gysberts shouted out, calling Ficker a "showboating attorney."
"If you want a debate, go down to the local diner," Ficker told him.
"My question for you, Mr. Mayor -- do you condone what your officer did to my daughter?" the girl's mother asked him.
Gysberts responded that he had compassion for the girl, but asked why she didn't just tell officers her name.
Representatives from her family stopped the news conference, saying there was a child present.
Gysberts told the crowd, "I seek restorative justice," before then speaking with reporters. He said he's proud of the work that the Hagerstown Police Department officers do, but believes that Ficker is a "showboating, sideshow attorney" and "restorative justice is what we should be seeking."
"The bottom line is, no one was seriously injured her -- thank God -- and it could have been a whole lot worse," Gysberts told reporters after the outburst.
He also said he is grateful that the body camera footage was released quickly.
"I absolutely do believe black lives matter -- no ifs, ands or buts about it," he said. "That has absolutely nothing to do with what's going on here."