By Keith L. Alexander: The family of a man who was left paralyzed in 2019 after a Prince George’s County police officer allegedly slammed the man to the ground during a traffic stop has filed a $75 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the county.
About two dozen family members and supporters of Demonte Ward-Blake, including his mother and aunts, joined Baltimore-based attorneys William “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Malcolm P. Ruff in announcing the court action Monday at a news conference.
The lawsuit, which also names former Prince George’s County police corporal Bryant W. Strong as a co-defendant, alleges Strong used excessive force on Oct. 17, 2019, when he slammed Ward-Blake to the ground after pulling the 24-year-old over for driving a car with expired tags. Ward-Blake’s girlfriend and her 6-year-old daughter arrived later at the scene.
Officials said Ward-Blake became agitated during the traffic stop and tried to flee as officers removed him from the car and handcuffed him. That move, officials said, prompted Strong to pull him to the ground. Ward-Blake hit his head on the ground, his attorneys said, breaking vertebrae in his neck and spine and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Murphy called the lawsuit an “indictment of the racist, unlawful and unchecked pattern of practice of excessive force of the Prince George’s police.” Ruff added that “addressing police misconduct” was a key initiative for the firm. “We will never back down from this core mission in the face of this type of flagrant police violence directed at Black and Brown people,” Ruff said.
A spokesman for Prince George’s County Police Department referred calls to the county. Gina Ford, a spokeswoman for the county, declined to comment.
Murphy is no stranger to federal lawsuits involving police officers. In 2015, Murphy secured a $6.4 million settlement with the city of Baltimore after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody. Gray’s death set off days of civil uprising across the city.
Murphy also represented the family of 43-year-old William Green, who was shot six times with his hands cuffed behind his back in the front seat of a police cruiser by then-Prince George’s Cpl. Michael A. Owen Jr. Owen was charged with second-degree murder in Green’s death and his case is scheduled to go to trial next year.
In 2020, the county agreed to pay $20 million to Green’s family, which at the time was one of the nation’s largest single settlements involving someone killed by law enforcement.
In the Ward-Blake case, a grand jury last year indicted Strong on charges of second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Strong is scheduled to go on trial in May.
In their 40-page filing, Ward-Blake’s attorneys argued their client was unarmed at the time of the arrest and alleged the officers did not seek immediate medical attention for Ward-Blake after he was injured. The complaint also included a photo of Ward-Blake lying in a hospital bed with a neck brace and tubes to his throat and mouth.
“This image of Plaintiff Demonte Ward-Blake as he lay in shock trauma on a respirator, is the tragically foreseeable outcome of a failed and biased system of policing in Prince George’s County, to which County leaders turned a blind eye. Plaintiff Demonte Ward-Blake paid the ultimate price for their unacceptable apathy,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint.
Ward-Blake, who was using a wheelchair, died in 2021 at the age of 26 after injuries he sustained in a shooting in District Heights in November 2020. Ward-Blake was shot three times in his abdomen, according to police reports. A second person with Ward-Blake was shot in the jaw and upper torso.
The lawsuit alleges in a wrongful-death complaint that Ward-Blake’s paralysis contributed to his death, leaving him unable to flee the shooting or protect himself and that his body was already in a weakened condition as a result of his spinal injuries sustained during the traffic stop.
Murphy and Ruff allege that Strong had been the subject of multiple excessive force investigations by the department before his interaction with Ward-Blake but that supervisors within the department did not take appropriate action. The attorneys said Strong was cited in an internal review, known as the Michael Graham report, that was made public in 2020. The report cited Strong as one of the officers that received numerous excessive force complaints within the department between 2016 and 2019.
Murphy and Ward-Blake family members criticized county officials and encouraged individuals to register to vote — not only to replace elected officials who have failed to address police brutality issues but also to ensure jury pools, drawn from voter rolls, are diverse.
Murphy accused the Prince George’s government of not protecting the rights of its citizens, but stopped shot of criticizing County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) who he said has done the “right thing” by addressing police brutality within the department. But he added that more work needs to be done.
The attorneys and Ward-Blake’s family repeatedly proclaimed the number 653, which they said was the number of days Ward-Blake lived while using a wheelchair.
“We’re here for a Black life that mattered,” Murphy said. “Demonte Ward-Blake’s life mattered. The Black and Brown lives of Prince George’s residents who have been repeatedly victimized by police officers here in this county for decades now, their lives matter. ”