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Prince George’s County and the SWAT Team: Unnecessary Roughness
Comments () | Published May 23, 2011

In a Berwyn Heights living room a couple of blocks from Calvo's home, Charles and Wanda Harris talk about how such a scenario can affect a family.

"It was about 6 AM when they were beating on the door," says 51-year-old Wanda as she recounts the events of March 23, 2009. "I couldn't imagine who was beating on the door. I look out the glass pane to a gun in my face and someone saying, 'Open the door' "

The Prince George's police SWAT team was searching for a gun it believed belonged to the Harrises' 20-year-old son, Charles III. A day earlier, the couple's 16-year-old niece, who had been living with the family since her mother died in 1996, called police to say her cousin had pulled a gun on her.

"We don't even have a gun in the house," says the elder Charles Harris, shaking his head. "Never had a gun in the house. My son is a good kid."

The niece had lied to help her 25-year-old sister, who was living in the District, obtain custody of her. It worked: The younger Charles was charged with assault in the first and second degrees and with use of a deadly weapon. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Charles—a graduate of Bladensburg High School who had taken honors classes and run his father's cleaning business for six months while his father was laid up by acute anemia—spent a month in jail before the family could afford bail, which defense lawyer James Zafiropulos got knocked down from $300,000 to $1,800.

The SWAT team ransacked the younger Charles's room—pulling out drawers of clothes, breaking bowling trophies he'd won as a child. They found nothing, and charges were dropped that July.

The incident was two years ago, but it still haunts the family. "After going through this, he can't get himself together," Wanda says of her son. "He just can't."

Since the Culosi incident, Fairfax police have started to use a threat assessment to determine whether a SWAT team is needed. Previously, a detective made a request for a SWAT team simply by calling a Special Operations commander. Now, unless it's a hostage situation or other threat that requires an immediate tactical response, that same officer would need to fill out an eight-page form and have three levels of command sign off on it.

Nicholas Beltrante, an 83-year-old retired DC police sergeant who lives in Alexandria, wants the county to hold the police force accountable for mistakes and miscalculations. That's why he formed the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability last April.

Beltrante is campaigning for a citizens' review board to become a part of Fairfax County's government—something he thinks should be a given for such a large community. He's garnered the support of organizations such as the ACLU of Virginia and the National Police Accountability Project.

In a letter to Beltrante last June, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Sharon Bulova said the board would pursue his suggestion and had recently met with Police Chief Rohrer to discuss it. More than six months later, Bulova wrote to inform Beltrante that the police chief can't make a decision until Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin and County Attorney David Bobzien have reviewed the matter. According to a county spokesperson, there should be a decision soon.

In Calvo's case, the details of his settlement with the county aren't final, but it will mandate changes in police policy. And the settlement is a legally enforceable document he could use to sue if those new rules aren't followed. Calvo hopes he doesn't have to take that step. For now, he's looking ahead.

Calvo is celebrating his upcoming 40th birthday by hosting a fundraiser on March 26 for the Payton and Chase Fund for Animal Causes, a community fund he recently launched. The goal is to raise money to support animal rescues and encourage the humane treatment of animals.

Calvo doesn't want to be known always as "the mayor whose dogs were shot." He and Tomsic plan to start a family one day and move on from this ordeal. Yet an occasional missive from a stranger won't let him move on entirely. "I got a message last night on Facebook about a SWAT raid in Bowie," says Calvo. "They're still out there."

This article appears in the April 2011 issue of the Washingtonian.

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Posted at 08:10 AM/ET, 05/23/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles