2021 | Courts

County executive open to settling case alleging police mistreatment of 5-year-old

Family’s attorneys also open to negotiation

share this
montgomery-county-logo

Both sides of a lawsuit that alleges two police officers mistreated a 5-year-old boy after he walked away from his elementary school say they are willing to negotiate a settlement.

In January, the family of the boy filed a lawsuit against the county and school board, alleging the police harassed, threatened and assaulted the boy.

Several weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the police department released one officer’s body camera footage that shows the officers yelling at the child, calling him names like “little beast” and “bad,” screaming in his face, placing handcuffs around one wrist and coaching his mother about how to “beat” him without getting in trouble. Throughout much of the video, the boy is crying, sometimes in hysterics.

The lawsuit and video have drawn outrage from people across the country, including Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker, who said this month that he thinks the county should settle the lawsuit, rather than fight it.

“These people were harmed, and they were harmed by our officers,” Hucker said at the time. “… We can’t change the past, but we should try what we can to make them whole.”

He said, however, that the County Council does not have the authority to settle lawsuits. That direction must come from the county executive, he said.

Asked about the lawsuit during a call with reporters this week, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he would “absolutely” be willing to negotiate a settlement with the family.

“I haven’t seen a proposal brought to my attention from the family for a settlement,” Elrich said. “But I’m probably of the same mindset: I feel this is best settled rather than prosecuted, but you can’t settle without somebody saying, ‘This is our proposed settlement.’ ”

In an interview Friday morning, attorneys for the family said they, too, are willing to settle the lawsuit.

“Of course we’re always willing to engage in settlement discussions,” attorney James Papirmeister said. “We welcome hearing from the county in that regard.”

He and co-counsel Matthew Bennett declined to comment on what they feel would be an appropriate settlement amount.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday, Hucker reiterated that he thinks the county “should apologize to the family, acknowledge the harm that was caused by our officers, and reach a financial settlement as quickly as possible.”

“We teach our children that when they harm another person, they need to apologize and they need to do what they can to make it right,” Hucker wrote. “The administration needs to do that as well.”

In January 2020, two Montgomery County police officers responded to a call that a 5-year-old boy had left East Silver Spring Elementary School.

The officers have been identified in court filings as Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday.
Within two minutes of arriving on the scene — less than a quarter-mile from the school — and approaching the boy, one officer is stern with the boy, who is quiet and hesitant to answer questions.

The boy begins to cry and becomes increasingly upset, screaming and appearing to hyperventilate. Christmon grabs the boy’s arm and escorts him into a police car. He then drives him and the school’s assistant principal, Justine Pfeiffer, who was present throughout, back to the school.

At the school, the police told the boy to sit in a chair. When the boy hesitates, one officer picks him up and puts him in the chair. The boy again becomes upset and cries as the officers forcefully tell him to “shut that noise up.”

When the boy is seated, Holliday is shown letting out five screams inches from the boy’s face, mocking the 5-year-old’s cries.

“I need to beat on somebody,” she then said, one of several references the officers make to “beating” children or the boy.

After the boy’s mother arrives, the officers bring them both into a conference room and have a brief conversation in which they tell the mother she can legally “beat” the child.

Then, Christmon placed one handcuff around the boy’s wrist and put both of the boy’s hands behind his back, as part of an attempt to scare him into better behavior.

A year after the incident, in January 2021, the boy’s family filed a lawsuit against the officers, school system and county government, alleging assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, violation of rights, negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

The police department has said that the officers are still on the job and has not publicly stated what disciplinary action was taken against them.

In a response filed this month to the lawsuit, Christmon and Holliday admitted to nearly all of the quotes attributed to them in the lawsuit and documented on video, but repeatedly alleged “facts, statements and information material to a complete and accurate depiction of the events” are omitted. They did not specify what had been omitted.

The officers denied threatening the boy, mistreating him, or acting in a way that necessitated that the boy receive “protection” from them. The lawsuit had alleged that school officials who were present should have protected the boy from the officers’ treatment.

In a separate court filing, the Montgomery County Board of Education asked that allegations that school staff members were negligent and violated the boy’s rights be dismissed.

The school board also argues that the family does not prove that the failure of officials to keep the boy in the school is what caused harm to the boy. School employees could not have “reasonably anticipated the behavior of the officers,” the district said in its response.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com