Patterson High School Principal Vance Benton.
Patterson High School Principal Vance Benton. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore County Police Department has taken administrative action against a white officer who was involved in a dispute this summer with an African-American city school principal in Owings Mills.

County police have concluded the investigation into a claim by Patterson High School’s Vance Benton that he was insulted and demeaned by the officer. Benton complained that the officer had shown racial bias and attempted to bait him into taking actions that would get him arrested. Benton had been a bystander observing an arrest in July on his street when the confrontation occurred.

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County police would not release the results of its investigation or the name of the officer, citing the need to keep the officer’s personnel record private. They have not released body-camera footage of the incident.

However, Major James P. Monahan, the commander of the internal affairs division, wrote to Benton, saying that the department was taking action.

“The investigation determined that the officer was in violation of Department Rules and Regulations. Corrective administrative action will be initiated," the letter says.

Monahan’s letter does not describe what rules were broken or what action would be taken against the officer.

“It is my sincere desire that your future contacts with the Baltimore County Police Department be of a favorable nature,” Monahan wrote to Benton.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, who encouraged police to do the investigation, said he had confidence the department would take the appropriate action.

“We encourage our officers every day to build better relationships with the community and violating department rules falls short of that goal," Olszewski said in a statement. “Citizens deserve thorough and fair investigations when they file complaints about an employee’s conduct.”

Benton, who has been principal of the East Baltimore school for eight years, filed a complaint in early August with county officials, including Olszewski and the county’s new police chief, Melissa R. Hyatt, telling them that he had never experienced such “degradation, disrespect and humiliation.”

Benton said he was with his teenage son on July 29 watching the arrest of a man and was not involved in the crime that police were investigating when the officer confronted him.

Benton said he stood about 20 yards from the arrest, but a female officer came up and asked him to leave. Benton responded that he believed he was allowed to stand on the sidewalk where he was if he wasn’t interfering with the police. Another officer who appeared to be in charge waved at him and said he was fine to stay where he was.

Benton said a third officer, who was white, approached him and “ranted” about how people try to hinder investigations. Benton said he began talking to his son, and when he turned back to face the officer, the officer shouted: “Don’t you buck up at me.”

The officer then shone his flashlight in Benton’s face, saying he wanted to get a good look at Benton, according to the principal’s account. Benton asked for the officer’s name and tried to read the officer’s name tag through the glare in his eyes.

The officer asked, “Can you even read?” and proceeded to spell his name in an exaggerated way, Benton said.

According to Benton’s account, the officer asked his son whether he always obeyed his father. When the younger Benton said he did, the officer responded, “I guess I will be seeing you again.”

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“The lives of innocent citizens, especially those that are African American, are in jeopardy if [the officer’s] innate racial biases and his belittling actions to ‘bait’ citizens into being arrested aren’t analyzed and addressed immediately,” Benton wrote in his letter to county officials complaining about the officer’s actions.

As part of the investigation, police interviewed Benton and showed him the officer’s body-camera footage, which he said corroborates his account of what happened.

During his interview, he asked the department if he could sit down with the officer to describe how the officer’s actions and language were racist in his eyes. He wanted to tell the officer how his behavior had frightened his son — who was with him at the time — and made him believe that his father was in danger.

Benton’s request is based on the idea of restorative justice, a practice used in schools, including his own, that requires a victim and perpetrator to sit down together and talk over their differences.

“If we are asking children to do that, why does an officer have to hide behind a shield? I don’t even know his name,” said Benton, adding that he believes a face-to-face meeting would help the officer learn and grow from his mistake.

No such meeting has been scheduled. Benton said the department’s letter to him is so vague that it doesn’t adequately describe the consequence for the officer.

The Baltimore Sun has asked for the body-camera footage.

County Councilman Julian Jones, whose district includes Owings Mills where the incident occurred, said police should release the video.

“The citizens pay for it. They should be able to see it,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

He pointed to a case in 2015 where the department released footage of a fatal shooting in which in an officer killed a 19-year-old man in Reisterstown. The agency released the video in defending the officer’s actions.

“We released that footage almost immediately," said Jones, adding that the case involved the loss of life, a more serious issue than a verbal dispute between a police officer and a citizen.

David Rocah, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, believes the police department should not deny the public access to the video because they say it is part of the officer’s personnel file. He said the body-camera footage is a record that was created independent of the internal affairs investigation. The county cannot shield the footage from public view, he said.

Rocah said local governments adopted the use of body cameras to document what police officers are doing.

If the department does not turn over the video, Rocah said, then “the Baltimore [County] Police Department is abusing both practices and laws meant to ensure public access and accountability."

Rocah said the public, like Benton, has a “vital interest” in knowing “whether there is an officer on the county police department who can’t control his temper or is a racist.”

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