A 61-year-old retiree has accused an undercover Howard County police officer of lying in a report after he said the officer stuck a gun in the his face and ordered him onto the ground on the parking lot of an Elkridge grocery store.
The officer, Pfc. Christopher Williams, said in a field contact report filed the day of the incident that he had been staking out a nearby bank for a wanted robber when a Dodge Dakota pickup truck entered the parking lot. Williams said that he entered the truck's license plate number incorrectly into his laptop computer, which listed a truck with those tag numbers as stolen.
In the field contact report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Williams wrote that he handcuffed the driver, Cleve Chick of Elkridge, and returned to his marked police vehicle, where he discovered the error. Williams, who received the department's first-year service award in 2004, made no reference to his firearm and wrote that he released Chick "without incident" after discovering his mistake.
Chick said in a recent interview that he thought he was being carjacked when the plainclothes officer pointed a pistol at him.
"He's screaming at me, 'Get down! Get down!" Chick said. "At any point, if I disobeyed him, I knew I was going to get shot. He scared me to death."
After Chick filed a complaint, Howard County police launched an internal investigation and found a "performance issue" with Williams' actions in the Nov. 9, 2006, incident but no evidence of "intentional misconduct," according to a March 8 memo from Police Chief William J. McMahon to Chick's attorney, Clarke Ahlers.
Ahlers, a former Howard County officer, said that Williams should have filed a use-of-force report, which would have alerted high-level commanders to the incident and possibly prompted an internal investigation. Not doing so amounted to a cover-up, Ahlers said.
"My sense is that the Police Department's reaction to this is that it was a simple mistake and 'no big deal,'" Ahlers said. "The recklessness of this situation and the harm that could have been done is of no moment to them."
McMahon declined to comment on the internal investigation because it was a confidential personnel matter. Williams also declined an interview through agency spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.
However, McMahon said that officers are required to file use-of-force reports when they point a gun at someone.
When walking toward a person suspected of a violent crime, officers routinely carry their weapons outside their holsters, either at their side or in a position known as "low ready," both of which would not require use-of-force reports, McMahon said.
In the low-ready stance, officers point their firearms at a 45-degree angle toward the ground using both hands.
According to Chick, someone tapped on the driver's side window of his truck as he rifled through his wallet for a prescription on the parking lot of the Giant supermarket. He turned to see Williams, in civilian clothes, pointing a gun in his face.
Once he realized Williams was a police officer, Chick said, he tried to explain his innocence and supply Williams with his driver's license.
According to the field contact report, Williams was monitoring the Chevy Chase Bank at the Lyndwood Square shopping center on Marshalee Drive in Elkridge on a Thursday afternoon when Chick pulled into a parking space.
Williams then incorrectly typed Chick's license plate number into a statewide motor-vehicle database, which officers access through their in-car laptops. The check returned a "stolen vehicle alert" on a black Dodge Dakota truck. Chick's truck is gray.
Doug Ward, associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership, said bank robbers often wear disguises and that the stolen vehicle alert would justify Williams' pulling his firearm - and pointing at the suspect's face.
"It's bingo, in his mind," said Ward, formerly a state trooper for 27 years. "He's thinking, good grief, a bank robbery is going to happen. In that situation, you conduct a felony traffic stop with your gun out and the guy on the ground. ... Otherwise, once you see his face, you won't have time to react, and if your gun is pointed at the door, and not at the window, the bullet's not going to go through the door."
Although such caution is necessary, officers still must comply with administrative policies and complete the proper paperwork, Ward said.
In the March 8 memo, McMahon wrote that the unknown "performance" issue would "be addressed," but he has not informed Chick or Ahlers about what, if any, action was taken.
Chick said that the only similarity between himself and Craig J. Mills, the man federal authorities later arrested in connection with the bank robberies, is that they're black. Chick is about 16 years older than Mills and is significantly thinner.
Chick moved to Maryland from New Jersey in 1994 when Mercedes-Benz USA transferred him to its Baltimore Parts Distribution Center. He worked for Mercedes-Benz for almost 38 years before retiring in 2004.
Ahlers has notified the county of a potential lawsuit.
"If my client was suspected of either stealing a car or robbing a bank, why wasn't he frisked?" Ahlers asked. "Why wasn't backup called? Why wasn't his car searched?"