Underage drinking task force and credibility

GeorgemagusIf you take Officer Jeremy Smalley and Deputy John Durham at their word, then they failed.

On the night of January 4 the pair was involved in a raid of a Damascus home where they suspected underage drinking. According to them their goal was to “stop the party and make sure everyone gets home safely.”

When they were done raiding the home two people had to go to the hospital and many more – according to charging documents - apparently left the scene of the party without being detained.

Last week defense attorneys Rene Sandler, Chris Griffiths and Terrell Roberts challenged the entire raid as a violation of a homeowner’s Fourth Amendment rights. Circuit Court Judge Steve Salant agreed with them and suppressed the evidence gathered in the raid.

He noted the many inconsistencies in statements by officers Smalley and Durham - calling some of them “untrue” and “doubtful”. A 26-year veteran of the police department who attended the Damascus party even contradicted testimony offered by the arresting officers.

Some of this testimony sounded more like bad comedy than serious facts.

Durham and Smalley claimed they could tell a 21-year-old from a 20-year-old who drank too much by sight. How is that possible? Well according to Smalley and Durham, based on their extensive experience busting underage drinkers you can tell because the way a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old acts is “very different,” Durham said. “It’s exaggerated movements,” he told the court. “Hey look at me,” he added as he waved his arms. He also said urinating outdoors is sometimes a giveaway. Loud music and boisterous laughter also adds into the decision process. I guess I’m doomed to be forever under 21. I will reserve comment in a family newspaper about how an officer claimed he could identify an underage drinker by witnessing him urinate.

If that sounds funny, additional testimony by Durham was just frightening.

He told defense attorneys he was unaware of alternative ways to break up a suspected underage drinking party. These alternatives are part of a procedures manual used by the unit Durham works for. The kicker? It was written by Captain Tom Didone of the Montgomery County Police Department. The manual used nationwide to disperse underage drinking parties was unknown to a county sheriff’s deputy charged with dispersing a suspected underage drinking party and who worked for the guy who wrote the manual.

“I have not read that,” Durham declared from the witness stand.

Smalley’s testimony was equally frightening. He said the policies and procedures weren’t necessarily stiff rules, but broad guidelines which could be changed on the scene by a police officer. The county has procedures, but according to Smalley the unit he works for is free to ignore them.

When police raided the home in Damascus a few weeks after Christmas this year, the raid made local television, radio and newspapers because of the “near riot”, the number of people involved and the fact Smalley and Durham claimed the homeowners tried to beat the police officers and take their guns.

The judge noted that in the subsequent warrant – issued five hours after the raid – the police didn’t mention the alleged assaults. Because of the inconsistencies in the testimony of the two officers, it is questionable such an assault ever even occurred. Indeed the videotape the police tried so hard to get, and which I’ve seen, shows police dragging the homeowner out of his house, handcuffing him and repeatedly tasing him while he offers little to no resistance. Granted something sparked such an outpouring of violence, but the judge’s ruling clearly showed the entire debacle could’ve been avoided had Durham and Smalley done their job correctly and followed the nationwide procedures established by their own Captain.

The events in the 9400 block of Damascus road on January 4 came after a pizza delivery driver tipped officers about some “young-looking” people drinking. Jumping to conclusions and using questionable methods Smalley and Durham then took fellow officers on a thrill ride through a private party, ripping apart a home, tasing an accountant, his son and arresting his wife and other son. In the process they put others at risk – including other officers and civilians.

But the damage done is even worse – young people who witnessed this got a very wrong idea of what police work is like. It is why some people do not trust police.

That cannot be undone. But the excellent work done by local police should not be negated by the questionable acts of some of their officers. The question is – what should be done now?

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