How a beat-down at a traffic stop became a three-year legal battle
Tionne Jordan knew he didn’t run the stop sign at Elm and 3rd Streets NW. Metropolitan Police Department Officer Lawrence Holland never saw him do it. It was only a hunch that made the officer, an 11-year veteran, pull his cruiser behind Jordan’s Dodge Spirit along the 200 block of Elm Street just before midnight on June 10, 1999.
So when Holland asked Jordan, then 20 and a student at the University of the District of Columbia, if he had just run the sign, Jordan asked the officer if he was really sure he’d seen it. Holland asked Jordan to step out of the car. Four minutes later, Jordan was in handcuffs, with bruises and deep lacerations to his head, face, left ear, and hands. He was bleeding “like a spout” from his head, Jordan remembers.
“This was something that had to be investigated,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Maisel recalls. Maisel had spent only four months with his office’s civil rights unit—the unit charged with investigating police use-of-force cases—when he saw a Fox 5 news report on the incident. Already, he knew that most of the dozens of cases he had to oversee were bad cases—cases with unreliable witnesses or victims who’d been caught committing a crime. Cases that would never pass the scrutiny of the jury.
“It is a rare case which you have witnesses who are truly independent and who saw what happened,” Maisel says. “In many cases, you have police officers as the only witnesses.”
Jordan’s beating, Maisel soon realized, was something else. Multiple independent witnesses all told the same story: Holland striking a passive Jordan with his slapstick as the student lay on the ground. “You had the whole 200 block of Elm Street watching,” he says. “And they didn’t know Tionne, and they didn’t know the officer.”
Moreover, Jordan had committed no crime. He had hospital records documenting his wounds. And there was a huge size difference between the cop and the motorist: Officer Holland, a former college football player, weighed 230 pounds, whereas Jordan was a skinny 130. A jury, Maisel thought, would surely take note.
So Maisel followed the case, while the FBI investigated. For all Maisel’s confidence, the case proved difficult enough, according to two sources, to pass through several grand juries. Finally, more than a year into the investigation, Holland was indicted on March 14, 2001, in federal court. Two days later, the officer was arrested and charged with three counts of civil rights violations, including assault with a deadly weapon and unnecessary use of force.
That spring and summer, Maisel and prosecutor Barry Williams prepared for the trial. They gathered their witnesses—a store owner, a woman who lived up from Elm Street, and Jordan. They gathered photos of Jordan’s wounds and pea-sized dings on his car’s trunk left by Holland’s slapstick.
“We thought we had the basis for a conviction,” Maisel says. “But there’s no such thing as a slam-dunk in police-brutality cases.”
No matter how many witnesses, police-brutality cases hinge on the believability of the officer. No matter how much D.C. jurors seem to hate the police, prosecutors say, they do not want to convict officers. And officers know what to say when they sit in the witness chair: I feared for my life. That’s what Holland said, and the trial ended in September with a hung jury and a mistrial.
In mid-November, Maisel and Williams made a second attempt, in a federal trial before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. They were still confident; Holland’s testimony, they thought, could be turned to their advantage. His account of the night, it seemed to them, had reflected more bravado than fear.
On the stand the second time, Holland stuck to his story, claiming that Jordan had swung at him first, hitting him on the shoulder, and that Jordan had challenged him to a fight. The suspect, he said, had gone into a macho routine, cussing him out. “You ain’t seen shit,” he said Jordan had told him. He could do nothing, Holland said, but try and protect himself.
But Holland admitted that he had cursed out Jordan, calling him a “little bitch.” He also testified that he’d told Jordan, “Well, you are about to get your ass whooped now.”
There were holes in his credibility, too. He admitted that he hadn’t seen Jordan run the stop sign and copped to having given false statements in the past, having taken sick leave when he was well.
Jordan, on the other hand, had a clean record and a clean story. He had placed his hands on the trunk, he testified, according to Holland’s orders. The officer then smacked his hands with a slapstick, Jordan said, causing him to turn around and raise his hands in pain. Then Holland tackled him to the ground and repeatedly struck him in the face, head, and hands. At no point, he said, did the officer give him any orders with which he could comply.
The prosecutors also pointed out that Holland had never called for backup during the incident, even though his radio was handy. They called several Elm Street residents who had seen parts of the confrontation that night.
Still, the result was another mistrial. One juror says that the panel went to the jury room divided and stayed that way. They couldn’t figure out whether Holland had crossed the line into complete recklessness. The juror says she wouldn’t want Holland patrolling her neighborhood, anyway. “I say he wasn’t a good cop,” the juror says. “I’d say the opposite.”
Convinced that their case was still sound, Maisel and Williams tried one more time. On March 13, the day Holland’s third trial was to begin, the officer pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor assault charge. He had simply run out of money for court expenses, he says. On May 17, he was sentenced to five years’ probation and 150 hours of community service and was ordered to attend an anger-management program and to pay Jordan’s court costs and medical bills, which totaled $4,532.09. While on probation, he’s barred from taking any jobs in law enforcement or security.
It took three years to account for those four minutes on Elm Street. Holland says he wishes he could get those minutes back but adds that he did nothing wrong. “I couldn’t have seen this coming,” he says of the incident. “No shape, form, or fashion.”
He was not the monster that the prosecutors depicted in court, he says. He was new to the midnight shift, and he says he was sick of arresting black kids. He estimates that Jordan was his first arrest that year.
The incident, he insists, came down to a lack of training. He wishes he been trained on how to use mace and what he calls “verbal judo.” He says his training on using a slapstick was minimal. “Could I have been trained better?” he asks. “Should I have been trained better?”
Searching for blame, Holland, who is black, settles finally and conclusively on race: The black community wanted something done about police brutality, and prosecutors took one of the community’s own to ease political tensions. The justice system failed him. “What did I expect?” he asks. There’s no justice, he adds, for black men.
Jordan, who is also black, sits in the kitchen of his home a few blocks from Elm Street and offers a different take on the justice system. He says that since the incident, the police have made him a target: He has been arrested for loitering in front of his own home, been the subject of a jump-out, and had his house ransacked twice by officers looking for drugs. His mother paid the loitering ticket just to get him out of jail; besides that, he still has a clean record.
And Jordan still has nightmares about the traffic stop. He jokes that he’s become an alarm clock, waking up every morning at 4 a.m. to the sound of Holland’s taunts of “little bitch.” And he plays back the scene in the 3rd District station, where he says Holland stuffed him behind a door so that his mother, come to pick him up, couldn’t see him. He’s in handcuffs, his head still bleeding, and the officer leans in and mutters, “Nobody’s going to believe you.” CP