When Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. ran for office in 2018, he walked westside communities and promised to improve what he called the “strained relationships" between the police department and the county’s neighborhoods.
But the release last week of police body camera footage of 76-year-old Rena Mellerson being thrown to the ground during an arrest at her Gwynn Oak home is the latest in a series of events that could make those efforts more difficult.
Video footage shows a Baltimore County officer confronting Mellerson and her granddaughter, Cierra Floyd, at the home on Jan. 10 after an earlier incident. The officer, identified only as Cpl. Brennan, said he was there to arrest Floyd for disorderly conduct, but Mellerson and Floyd object. They try to close their door on the officer, pinning his foot in the opening. Brennan calls for backup, uses his pepper spray and Taser and pulls his service weapon while trying to force the door open. He eventually gets into the home and police arrest the two women, another responding officer throwing Mellerson to the ground.
Olszewski called initial cellphone footage of the arrest “difficult to watch.” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt called the video “unsettling.” And County Councilman Julian Jones, whose district includes Gwynn Oak and other majority-black neighborhoods, called it “extremely troubling.”
Thomas Foster called it “crazy.”
“What would make him grab a 76-year-old woman, snatch her out the door, and throw her on the ground like she had a weapon,” the Windsor Mill resident said. “How bad could she be?”
Foster lives in the neighborhood where Brennan first encountered Floyd for a report of a child damaging vehicles. Several children nearby managed to get the child under control before officers arrived, he said.
Charging documents show Mellerson was charged with second-degree assault, resisting and interfering with an arrest, and obstructing or hindering a law enforcement officer performing his duties. Floyd was charged with second-degree assault on law enforcement, failure to obey a lawful order, second-degree assault, resisting and interfering with an arrest, and disorderly conduct.
The department is conducting an internal affairs investigation into the arrest.
Police body camera footage shows Floyd declining to answer police questions and swearing at officers. Several times Brennan warns Floyd about her behavior. Later, Brennan tracked Floyd to her grandmother’s home using motor vehicle records.
On the video, Floyd tells officers that she doesn’t trust the police.
And that’s the perception Olszewski is trying to change.
Olszewski, whose youngest brother serves in the county police department, said county officials recognize the problem. He said they’re taking “unprecedented steps to move all of Baltimore County toward a more equitable, transparent and accountable future."
“We must improve the relationship between our residents and the Baltimore County Police Department," Olszewski said in a statement, “and I am fully committed to doing so.”
Olszewski wants to recruit more police and reduce record homicide numbers. He’s also trying to overcome years of high-profile controversies.
This month, for instance, police opened an investigation into an incident involving officers and Gamel Antonio Brown, who died after officers used a Taser on him. The county transported him to a hospital, police said, where he went into cardiac arrest. The department also is reviewing the fatal shooting of Eric Sopp during a traffic stop in November.
Meanwhile, the county faces a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging the police department has engaged in hiring discrimination against African Americans who applied to become officers. A former county spokesman told The Baltimore Sun the lawsuit stems from a federal probe into the county that started before Olszewski took office. In a court filing, the county has denied those allegations. Less than 15% of its officers are black.
And traffic stop data shows African Americans are 30% of the county’s population, but were involved in nearly 57% of all vehicle stops in 2018. Most of the stops occurred in the Woodlawn police precinct.
The Blue Guardians, a group representing minority police officers, endorsed Olszewski in the 2018 race. The group’s president, Sgt. Anthony Russell, nonetheless raised concerns about Olszewski’s efforts after Hyatt was named police chief last May. Olszewski ignored qualified black candidates in the department after seeking and receiving support from the black community during his campaign, Russell said.
Olszewski, in a statement, continued to support Hyatt.
“Chief Hyatt is the right leader for this police department,” he said. "She shares my commitment to equity, inclusion and improved police-community relations and together, we will continue working tirelessly to achieve this for every resident of Baltimore County.”
Olszewski and Hyatt have met with community leaders and held public safety walks in neighborhoods where crime is a concern.
And the county is working on a new policy for releasing police body camera footage.
But Mellerson’s arrest has renewed criticisms of the department, community leaders said.
J. Wyndal Gordon, the Baltimore attorney representing the family, called the incident a "case of Contempt of Cop” in a released statement. The family plans to challenge the “warrantless” arrests in court, he said.
A day before Mellerson’s arrest, county resident Sheila Lewis told officials at a Randallstown town hall to “do something from the top-down" to change how they serve the county’s predominantly black neighborhoods.
“It’s a systemic problem, it’s an institutional problem," said Lewis, the former president of the Villa Nova Community Association, "and while this is about the police, the county needs to do more to work on relations between African-Americans and white people because there is some kind of disconnect.”
Part of the problem, said Windsor Mill resident Fran Peacock, is residents only see officers “when there’s something wrong."
“It’s about accountability. We should be able to call them and rely on them to have a decent conversation with us,” said Peacock, who added that Mellerson’s family deserves “justice,” because the officer’s actions were “wrong."
Carroll Watkins thought the relationship between his neighbors and Baltimore County police was fine.
"Everything’s OK until something happens,” said Watkins, president of the Gwynn Oaks Community Association. “When something happens, you see a whole different side.”
The footage of Mellerson’s arrest was the talk of the association’s recent meeting. Watkins agrees with the consensus among his neighbors: police used unnecessary force.
“It was too much to throw a 76-year-old woman on the ground. It’s not like she had a gun or a knife,” he said. “It could’ve been my mother.
“I can understand when you’re out in the street with these gangsters, but a 76-year-old woman who don’t want to let you into her house — it’s too much.”
Watkins said he’s had mostly positive interactions with county police, but he worries incidents like these tarnish the relationship.
“There’s a lot of good policemen out there," he said, "but it’s terrible when you see something like that.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.