Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, announced a $20 million settlement with the family of a D.C. man who was shot to death while handcuffed in the front seat of a police cruiser in January.
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced the settlement during a news conference Monday. The settlement, hailed as historic, comes nine months after police Cpl. Michael Owen fatally shot 43-year-old William Green following a traffic stop in Temple Hills, and amid a nationwide push for police reform following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
The settlement is among the largest in the U.S. involving someone killed by police.
“There is no price that you can put on the life of a son, a father and uncle, a brother — there is no appropriate price tag to accompany a loss like that,” Alsobrooks said. “But we believe that the actions taken that night against Mr. Green and ultimately taken against his family warrant this settlement.”
She added, “It is our belief that when we are at fault, we take responsibility. And in this case, we are accepting responsibility.”
Alsobrooks said the settlement amount would come from the county’s budget.
Owen, who has been charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault, is the first officer in the history of the county to be charged with murder for killing someone in the line of duty, the county executive said.
This criminal case against Owen is ongoing, and a trial date has been set for next March.
Green, who was suspected to be under the influence and had been taken into custody following a traffic stop on the evening of Jan. 27, was inside Owen’s cruiser for about 10 minutes before he was shot several times with his hands still handcuffed behind his back. Initially, police officials, citing witnesses, said there was evidence of a struggle but then later retracted that statement.
Speaking Monday, Alsobrooks said police department’s use-of-force experts attempted to recreate the scenario and could find “no reasonable way and no plausible explanation” for how Green could have posed a threat to the officer by going for the officer’s gun.
The county executive said she supported Owen’s prosecution, which was announced less than 24 hours after the shooting.
“I determined that he should not be treated any differently than any other individual who had just shot someone multiple times with no clear justification,” Alsobrooks said.
Owen, who is Black and was a 10-year veteran of the police force at the time of the shooting, was not wearing a body-worn camera at the time.
‘The takeaway is that the Black life of Mr. Green truly mattered’
The settlement involved months of mediation between the county and members of the Green family, who were represented by attorney Billy Murphy.
Murphy called the settlement “historic.”
“The take-away is that the Black life of Mr. Green truly mattered,” he said. “And the Black lives of his mother and two children truly matter, because Black lives matter.”
At the news conference, Murphy was joined by Green’s mother and daughter, Brenda and Shelly Green, and son, William Little, along with other family members, many of whom knew the D.C. man as “Boo Boo,” Murphy said.
“And Boo Boo was the strength of this family,” he added. “He was the rock that everybody leaned on. He was the glue that held everybody together. He was a wonderful person with a tremendous personality.”
Since her father’s killing, “my life has been flipped completely upside down,” Shelly Green said in brief remarks at the news conference. “Losing my father has been the worst thing that has ever happened to me. And I can’t imagine anything in the future that will hurt as badly as this. Words cannot express the pain, sorrow and emptiness that we feel.”
Shelly Green said her family would use the settlement “not only to keep my father’s legacy alive but to also combat the evils of police brutality.”
Size of the settlement: ‘What’s fair?’
The family’s attorney said the size of the settlement “reflected the heinous nature, the brutal nature, the senseless nature of what happened to Mr. Green.”
Murphy said he could’ve won an even larger payment if he had pursued a civil case in court.
“From the family’s point of view, they didn’t want to wait four years for trial, and two years for an appeal,” he said. “They wanted justice as soon and as swiftly as we could get it.”
Retired Judge Steven Platt, who acted as the mediator in the settlement process, said eventually the county and the Green family agreed on the $20 million figure. “What we were talking about was: What’s fair?” he said.
The judge said the facts of the case were “uniformly bad” for the officer, and “more aggravating in some instances than the more high-profile cases that have gone on around the country.”
Platt added: “I look around the country. I look at George Floyd, I look at Breonna Taylor. And I see cases (where) the government that’s responsible did not step up, and in some cases still hasn’t.” Prince George’s County “stepped up immediately,” he said.
Calls for police reform
Murphy, the family’s attorney, also thanked Alsobrooks “for having the courage to do the right thing,” and praised her work as county executive, but had harsh words for the county’s police force, saying when she came into public office as a prosecutor several years ago, she was “saddled … with a corrupt, racist, brutal police department” that she should now work to reform.
“When she was a prosecutor, she couldn’t deal with it like she can deal with it now,” he added. “But now, she has an opportunity to reform the department.”
Murphy called for body cameras and better policies for screening out officers who are unfit for the job.
Murphy also said changes need to be made to make it easier to fire “bad apples.”
Murphy said he and his colleague Malcolm Ruff spent hours researching the case, and said they found a “terrible pattern” of “senseless, hair-trigger violence” in Owen’s background that should have been flagged by his superiors.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89 President Angelo Consoli said the group supported Alsobrooks’ actions, and called for due process to take place in Owen’s criminal trial.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that the police department’s early-warning system flagged Owen months before he shot Green. Owen triggered the system by using force twice in quick succession last summer, but his supervisors hadn’t been formally notified until January and didn’t act before Owen killed Green, the newspaper reported.
Owen was also involved in at least two other shootings. In 2011, he fatally shot a man who pointed a gun at him after Owen left an event at police headquarters, the department said. Owen was placed on administrative leave after that killing.
After being charged in Green’s killing, prosecutors said they were reviewing the earlier shooting.
Alsobrooks said she is committed to making changes and pointed to the work of the police reform task force she launched in July to review the police departments, hiring, training and use-of-force policies. The task force is due to deliver its recommendations in December.
During her remarks, the county executive said while she is committed to moving forward with reforms, she also said she would defend the county’s police officers when warranted.
“There is excellent work that is performed every single day by the men and women of this department,” she said. “Many of them serve this community with dignity and grace and courage.”
WTOP’s Mike Murillo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.