Dvorak: Police chief had courage to hold officer accountable for shooting


Prince George's County, Maryland, Police Chief Henry Stawinski announces announces charges against Cpl. Michael Owen. MUST CREDIT: Washington post photo by Katherine Frey

Circle the wagons. Protect the blue wall. Keep the code of silence.

When police abuse their power, when they shoot unarmed suspects on the flimsiest of pretenses, it destroys our trust in those sworn to protect us. And too often, the transgressors aren’t held accountable.

Again and again, we see the video and watch the bodies fall, hear the gunshots and the witnesses talk about the pleas for help, listen to the families mourn.

We want our leaders to step up, to look at the facts, to say “This is not right.”

That is why people in a Maryland courtroom began clapping. Because it finally happened.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, 24 hours after a handcuffed man was shot and killed in police custody last month, a police chief called it like was and saw the officer charged with murder. In record time.

“I am unable to come to our community this evening and provide you with a reasonable explanation for the events that occurred last night,” Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski told reporters. “I concluded that what happened last night is a crime.”

And when a judge denied bail for Cpl. Michael Owen, 31, the courtroom filled with an unconventional round of applause.

Owen was arrested a day after he shot and killed William Green, a 43-year-old father of two from Washington.

Green had been in a traffic accident on the way home from a restaurant when the officer arrived on the scene to investigate. He handcuffed Green and put him in the front seat of his police car.

This is where the story gets horribly familiar.

Owen said Green struggled and that he was high on PCP.

The chief said it straight. There was no PCP, and there was no sign of a struggle. Only seven bullets that left a police weapon and a dead man.

This is what people wanted for Philando Castille, the 32-year-old cafeteria worker whose killing by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was live-streamed on Facebook four years ago.

Despite the graphic, searing video of the shooting, it took police four months filled with protests and unrest to charge Yanez, who was eventually acquitted.

This is what people wanted in 2014, when Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, killing him. Later, the city’s inspector general found that police officers firmed up that blue wall, lying and destroying evidence.

This is what people wanted for Freddie Gray in 2015, when protesters filled the streets after the 25-year-old Baltimore man died in police custody.

Eventually, six officers were charged in Gray’s death. Three were acquitted, and the cases against three others were dropped in 2016.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said prosecuting officers is complicated and fraught; she said some officers were uncooperative during the investigation. “This system is in need of reform when it comes to police accountability,” Mosby said in a statement on the spot where Gray was arrested.

Police work is dangerous, and people are unpredictable. Most people understand that.

This was not the first time that Owen, the Maryland police officer arrested last month, has fired his police weapon.

In 2009, after someone shot at him during an attempted robbery outside his home, Owen, who was off-duty, fired back, police said. The person fled.

Two years later, he fatally shot 35-year-old Rodney Deron Edwards after he had pulled over in his unmarked van to help a man lying in the grass. Owen told investigators that Edwards had pulled a gun on him; a loaded revolver was found at the scene.

Prosecutors said they will now reexamine that case.

Even with two incidents behind him, Owens wasn’t wearing a body camera when he fatally shot someone for the second time. There are only 80 body cameras in a department of 1,500.

Stawinski and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat, said they would fund more body cameras in the future.

That’s worthy of applause, even if it should have happened long ago.

In every department and in every profession, there are bad apples. Their numbers are small compared with the hundreds of thousands of officers who do so much good in America every day.

As Stawinski announced the charges against his own officer, he said it was one of the hardest days of his career.

It must have been.

But he made a huge statement to the country on that tough day.

Staying silent about the bad actors with badges reeks of complicity and consent. And that kind of silence taints every officer.

— Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.

Today's Bible verse


“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside.”

— Job 23:10-11

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