As a young police officer in Prince George’s County in the 1990s, Kevin Davis was accused in separate lawsuits of slamming a Black driver into the pavement during a traffic stop and, with other narcotics detectives, illegally detaining a 19-year-old.
Juries awarded both plaintiffs damages, before Davis began a rapid ascent to the upper echelons of local policing. He became a top deputy in Prince George’s County, then went on to lead the police departments in Anne Arundel County and the city of Baltimore.
But amid a national reckoning on race and policing, those more-than-two-decade-old incidents have become fresh flash points as Davis, 52, who is white, begins his latest high-profile post Monday: police chief in Fairfax County, Virginia.
In recent days, Fairfax County’s chapter of the NAACP and several other groups have called for Davis’ ouster or have demanded more information about how Davis was chosen. At least three groups, including the NAACP and a group affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union, have expressed misgivings about the selection process.
Davis disputed the account of the driver in the traffic incident. He said he made a mistake in the other encounter and framed it as a learning experience.
Kofi Annan, executive director of The Activated People, the latter group that wants a new chief, wrote in an email that Davis “is not the leader we need at this moment.”
“The hire feels like a gut punch considering what the Black community and our nation has experienced over the past year,” Annan wrote. “While the Derek Chauvin verdict was a step in the right direction, this hire feels like we’ve taken two steps back locally.”
Fairfax County officials defended their choice, saying Davis has built a stellar record as a reformer since those early incidents and is well-positioned to continue the ambitious overhauls the Fairfax County Police Department has undergone in recent years.
Davis helped guide Baltimore’s troubled police department through reforms after the death of Freddie Gray of injuries suffered in police custody, and he paired officers with mental health professionals to respond to calls about people in crisis in Anne Arundel, among other innovative initiatives.
“Davis demonstrated a complete understanding and commitment to improving policing, promoting transparency, and building relationships in the community,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay said in a statement. “In addition, following conversations with leaders across the region as well as people who have directly worked with him, it is clear that they also have tremendous confidence in his abilities.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, Davis pointed out that he was cleared of any wrongdoing in internal reviews of both incidents from the ’90s. He took issue with the account of the Black driver in the first incident and said he erred in participating in the second. He said the latter case helped forge his policing philosophy and pushed him toward a reform mindset.
“That 1999 incident convinced me when I ascended to leadership positions ... I would take every effort and every care to ensure that my subordinates were never put in a position that was in contrast to the values of the police department and the community,” Davis said.
But Mark Spann, the driver in the first incident, questions the selection of Davis as chief.
Spann, then a White House intern, said in an interview that he was returning home after a night out in 1993 when Davis stopped him in front of his parents Temple Hills home for reasons he said remain unknown to him.
In Spann’s recollection of the event, Davis doubted that Spann owned the Mercedes-Benz he was driving and refused to answer questions about why he had been stopped. Spann also said in testimony in 1994 to the Prince George’s County Human Relations Commission, which investigated the encounter, that he refused requests by Davis to submit to a search.
As the conversation escalated, Spann grew fearful and honked his car horn, drawing his father out of their home. Walter Spann recalled that when Davis and another officer who arrived on the scene would not tell him what was happening, he criticized the officers’ communication skills. Walter Spann said Davis grew angry and prepared to handcuff his son.
After Mark Spann asked why he was being handcuffed, Davis grabbed him and threw him to the pavement, pushing his face into the ground and causing him to bleed, father and son said. Spann said he was then handcuffed and loaded into Davis’s cruiser, where he was threatened and insulted with racial slurs by Davis on the way to the police station.
Spann was charged with battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. His trial ended in a hung jury, with most jurors favoring his acquittal, according to court records.
Spann sued Davis, and a jury awarded him $12,500, according to court records.
“I’m incredulous that this man would be considered as a purveyor of justice for our communities and our safety,” Spann said.
In an interview, Davis emphatically denied using any racial slurs against the younger Spann and said his account is not accurate. Davis declined to address the specific points of his story, saying he didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with him.
“I respect his position and how he feels, but I strongly disagree with his memory,” Davis said.
In a statement and testimony to an investigator for the Human Relations Commission in 1994, Davis said he stopped Spann because he was acting suspiciously. Davis told the investigator that Spann got out of his car and walked briskly toward his cruiser and refused commands to get back inside the car. He also insulted Davis, calling him a “red-neck police officer,” according to a summary of Davis’s account.
When Davis asked Spann to put his hands on a cruiser for a search, Spann pointed his index finger in the officer’s face, according to the account. Davis told the investigator that Spann shoved him and that they both fell to the ground after a struggle. Davis told the investigator he did not intentionally push Spann’s face into the ground and that Spann kicked a second officer.
Spann denied being belligerent or physically violent.
The Prince George’s County Human Relations Commission concluded that the encounter was “an outrageous incident of police misconduct” and that Davis had used excessive force. The findings were based on interviews with Mark Spann and his father, since Davis chose not to testify before the full commission.
The panel said Davis harassed Mark Spann “without cause” by “treating him like a criminal suspect when there was no reason to do so” and “making physical and other threats.”
Though the department cleared Davis in the incident, the commission recommended that the police department pursue “significant disciplinary action” against him, pay Spann’s medical expenses and investigate whether there was any merit to the charges filed against Spann.
In the 1999 lawsuit, Davis and a group of Prince George’s County narcotics officers were accused of picking up a 19-year-old and questioning him for five hours on the whereabouts of his 17-year-old girlfriend. The girl was the niece of a deputy chief, who had ordered Davis and the other officers to hold the teen without a warrant.
The teen, Brian Romjue, later sued Davis and the other officers in federal court in Maryland, winning a $90,000 judgment. Romjue could not be reached for comment.
Davis said he was given the case under false pretenses and should have asked why a superior was asking narcotics detectives to investigate a missing-person case. He said it was a searing experience.
“The six most important words in the English language are ‘I admit I made a mistake,’ ” Davis said.
Davis’s selection followed a nationwide search to replace Dave Rohrer, who was serving as interim police chief since Edwin C. Roessler Jr. resigned in February. McKay said the effort was “comprehensive,” including 275 community meetings and calls, 450 emails to stakeholders, and a survey of county residents that drew 3,000 responses.
Even so, the Fairfax County NAACP and other groups said the public did not have enough input, that the selection process should have been more transparent and that they had questions about how fully Davis was vetted.
Karen T. Campblin, president of the Fairfax County NAACP, said in a statement that the organization has no confidence in the process by which Davis was selected and had raised concerns about the lack of public input while the process was underway.
“Unlike the 2013 hiring process for the former police chief, Fairfax County residents were excluded from the candidate evaluation and interview sessions,” Campblin said. “Throughout the hiring process, the Fairfax County NAACP expressed concern over the lack of transparency and accountability to the public.”
Fairfax County Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who heads the public safety committee, said the Fairfax County NAACP and other groups were given the opportunity to provide written comments on what they wanted in a police chief and to provide sample questions.
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“We incorporated their concerns, their issues and their questions in the interview process,” Lusk said.
Lusk said he could not comment on what supervisors knew of the incidents involving Davis from the ’90s, but Mark Spann said he was not contacted by county officials as he had been by Baltimore officials when Davis was up for chief there. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said it plans to hold a public meeting to address concerns about Davis.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said he knew nothing of the ’90s incidents involving Davis but said Davis had done substantive work as Baltimore’s police chief.
Wexler said Davis was the first big city police chief to implement PERF’s de-escalation policy at a time when it was controversial and some said it could get officers killed. Wexler said Davis also implemented a federal consent decree aimed at reforming the department at a time when he could have tried to put it off.
Wexler said that given the national climate around policing, issues from chiefs’ pasts are receiving more scrutiny. He said few candidates for chief of police have no baggage.
“People will look at what someone did years ago, and it comes back to haunt them,” Wexler said. “You have to ask yourself, given the totality of someone’s work: What have they done then, what would they do now, and what will they do in the future?”
The Washington Post’s Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this article.