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Baltimore County police officer indicted on excessive force and other charges

BALTIMORE (AP) — A Baltimore County police officer is accused of using excessive force when he pepper sprayed a handcuffed man in the face and closed him inside a hot patrol car, even as the man repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe.

In addition to excessive force, Cpl. Zachary Small has been charged with reckless endangerment, misconduct in office and multiple counts of assault, according to a grand jury indictment filed this week.

His indictment includes a narrative account of the interaction, including verbal exchanges in which Small dismisses the man's pleas for fresh air.

A 19-year veteran of the Baltimore County Police Department, Small previously served in the Military Police, according to his attorney.

“Like all citizens, Officer Small is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” attorney Brian Thompson said in an email. “I would ask that everyone withhold judgment until the facts come out at trial. When that happens, we are confident that he will be fully exonerated.”

According to Small’s indictment, he was among a group of officers dealing with a suspect who escaped from police custody while receiving hospital treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in September. Officers recaptured the suspect and restrained him with handcuffs and leg shackles, then placed him in the back seat of a patrol car with the windows rolled up, the indictment says. The man began banging his head against a window, telling officers he couldn’t breathe and complaining that the air conditioning was off.

“I don’t care,” Small replied, threatening to use a “whole can of pepper spray,” according to the indictment.

The indictment does not say why the man was hospitalized before his escape.

Small tried to slam the car door, but the man’s knee was in the way. Small then sprayed nine shots of pepper spray directly into the man’s face and closed the door, the indictment says. It says the man started gasping, choking and calling for help while kicking the car door to get officers’ attention.

Small returned to the car and opened the door, pulling the man out by his shirt and throwing him on the ground, according to the indictment.

“You asked for it. Just remember this. I warned you,” Small said while yanking on the man’s dreadlocks, the indictment says.

The suspect pleaded with officers not to put him back inside the car, but Small lifted him by his collar and forced him in, again closing the door, according to the indictment. Instead of calling for or giving the suspect medical help, Small ordered him taken to a police precinct.

Two other officers, Justin Graham-Moore and Jacob Roos, were also charged with misconduct in office for their involvement in the encounter. Details about their alleged misconduct weren’t included in their indictments and their attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement posted to social media Thursday night, the union representing Baltimore County police officers said it supports “our members’ entitlement to due process and the fairness mandated by the law.”

A spokesperson for the Baltimore County Police Department acknowledged the charges and said the agency is cooperating with prosecutors.

The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, which brought the case to a grand jury, declined to comment Friday. They said more information would be released at a news conference Tuesday.