Baltimore County police are investigating a claim that a white county police officer insulted and demeaned an African-American city school principal during an encounter last month in Owings Mills.
Vance Benton, who has been principal of Patterson High School in East Baltimore for eight years, wrote a letter to county officials, including County Executive Johnny 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 a bystander who watched an arrest a block from his house and was not involved in the crime that police were investigating when the officer confronted him.
“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 the letter.
The county police department confirmed the matter was under investigation and denied a request by The Baltimore Sun for the officer’s body camera footage, citing the investigation.
“We take all matters brought to our attention seriously and the agency is investigating the matter,” Hyatt said in a statement through her public information officer.
T. J. Smith, a spokesman for Olszewski, said the county executive is seeking more information about the investigation.
“While we don’t know the specific circumstances around this situation, we take complaints like this seriously." Smith said in an email. "No one should ever be mistreated by the police or any other county employee.”
In an interview, Benton detailed the experience he had July 29. On the way to pick up his teenage son from swim practice, he said he saw two young people who appeared to be a boyfriend and girlfriend having a disagreement on the side of the road.
Returning with his son, he saw the young African American man handcuffed and sitting on the curb. The man’s shirt was torn, he said.
He and his son parked the car at home and walked back to the scene. Benton said he wanted to make sure the young man was “handled properly by police,” but also thought he could teach his 15-year-old son lessons about how to stay out of trouble.
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.
A third officer, who was white, approached him and, Benton said, “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.”
Benton said he told his son he believed that the officer was imagining behavior that hadn’t happened, and that his view was racist.
"Did you see me buck up or even raise my voice?” Benton said he asked his son. “I told him that’s how black boys and men get killed by the police when police choose to see things that are not there.”
The officer then shone his flashlight in Benton’s face, saying he wanted to get a good look at Benton. 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. Benton then said the officer asked his son, if he listened to his father’s advice and when he said that he did, the officer responded, “I guess I will be seeing you again.”
Benton said his son, Taj Benton, is a good student at Baltimore City College and a nationally ranked swimmer.
Benton said he believed the officer was implying his son would get in trouble and the police would be called.
“He saw me as the ‘n-word’ and not as a black man with his son. He saw me as another opportunity to degrade someone and he relished that opportunity to do it in front of my son,” Benton said.
Benton said he believed the officer wanted to bait him so that he could arrest him, but instead Benton walked away saying good night.
While Benton gave The Sun the officer’s last name, The Sun is not using it because the county police department said it has a policy of not providing the first name of officers and the officer’s last name matches several other officers.