WASHINGTON — Police brutality. Two words with a massive impact. Cases continue to make headlines locally and nationally. Victims have spoken out, politicians have taken positions. But in this story, you will have the rare opportunity to hear from a police officer who served 10 years in prison for police brutality.
Her name is Stephanie Mohr and she spoke exclusively to FOX 5.
"It was everything I ever wanted to do. I went to college, I majored in other things but I ultimately came back to my first love, which was criminal justice," says Mohr.
She always wanted to be a cop. And in February 1993, she joined the Prince George's County Police Department.
"It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was challenging," she says.
After just 18 months on patrol, she became the first female officer in the K-9 unit. She calls it a "dream job," combining her love of dogs with her love of police work. She trained with the dogs for six months.
"I knew that I had to work harder than the average male to make my way, but I accepted that and i welcomed that,” Mohr says.
It was a quick ascent for the young officer, but things would soon take a dramatic turn.
Back in 1995, Takoma Park businesses were having a problem with burglaries. The suspects were getting in through the roof. So Takoma Park Police set up surveillance and on September 21 of that year, they spotted two suspects on the roof of a building along Holton Lane, then known as the Sligo Press Building. They called Prince George’s County K-9 for backup. What happened next is in dispute, but it irrevocably changed the life of Stephanie Mohr.
The building was surrounded. The men came down from the roof where Mohr and her training officer were posted.
This is what Mohr says happened next: "We were issuing them commands to stop and show their hands and to get on the ground. One of them made a move to go down an alleyway that was not covered and at that point, I committed the dog.”
The dog bit the man on the calf puncturing his skin and tearing a muscle. He never filed a complaint. Mohr's commanders checked off on her report. But this night would come back to haunt the young officer.
It was a time of turmoil for the Prince George's County Police Department. Citizen complaints and a string of media reports prompted a federal investigation of excessive force by officers. But the investigation yielded no major convictions. Then on September 20, 1995, one day before the statue of limitations was set to expire, Mohr was charged with deprivation of civil rights under color of law, a federal charge in police brutality cases.
In the first trial in February 2001, Mohr was acquitted on one charge, but the jury hung on the remaining charge. The government tried her again and in August of that same year, she was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison under then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Mohr's thoughts went straight to her young son, Adam.
"I'm trying to imagine leaving him for 10 years, how I'm going to do that, how he is going to survive and what impact this will have on my family and my friends," says Mohr.
Mohr got to know her son over the next decade through a picture book of his visits. Photos taken in an outside yard just for family visits. Every two weeks at first, then once a month. Someone drove him five and a half hours to visit mom in a West Virginia federal prison.
Adam explains it this way: "Hard I guess. Not having a mom with me, to help me, it was. Because my dad would have work a lot. Just don’t have someone to help me a lot with my homework.”
For Adam's mom, the visits were bittersweet. It was difficult to know she was missing much of his childhood. But she never allowed him to see her pain.
"The most important thing to me was for him to know that I was OK. So I was always good and I was always happy because I needed him to be happy,” says Mohr.
But she was far from happy. She appealed her conviction and maintained her innocence.
"I did what I was told to do. I did what I was trained to do. I did what I was expected to do," she insists.
The man who prosecuted Mohr disagrees.
Steven Dettlebach is now the U.S. Attorney for northern Ohio.
"In this case, you had a situation where two homeless Hispanic men were surrounded by police officers, who in a willful and wanton way, decided to attack them," he says.
Dettelbach says the bite on the man's calf caused significant damage and that numerous witnesses said he did not resist. He explains the man did not file a complaint against the police because he was homeless and in this country illegally. And Dettlebach has this response to the sentence of 10 years.
"The case is a tragedy all around,” he says. "But to think that the jury rendered the right verdict, that the judge made the right determination, and that the fourth circuit sitting in Richmond made the right determination in the case? I do," Dettlebach says.
The man who was bitten by the police dog did testify at trial, but was later deported and we were unable to contact him for this story. But Mohr believes her prosecution and 10-year sentence was never really about what happened to that man that day.
"The federal government was desperate to make a case against a Prince George's County Police officer," Mohr says. "After years and years of investigating, the only person they were able to indict and try was me."
There is no parole in the federal system. You must serve 85 percent of your sentence. In May 2001, Mohr was released to a halfway house, and was released from her ankle monitor the day after Thanksgiving. This was the first Christmas she has spent with her son in nearly nine years.
"It was just amazing. It makes you realize how lucky you are surrounded by your friends and your family,” Mohr says.
"How lucky you are?" we asked. "I think most people wouldn’t think of you as a lucky woman."
"I do," Mohr replies. "I've come out of this pretty strong."
Her goal now is to create a new book of memories filled with ordinary experiences that seem extraordinary her.
"I'd like to go a vacation with my son,” she says. “I’d like to help him with his homework. I'd like to go to his sporting events and be the loudest and craziest mom in the stands."
"I had my first basketball game maybe three weeks ago and my mom came,” Adam says. “And although we got crushed, it was nice for her to be there. And I was nervous because it would be her first game and I wanted to play my hardest."
So is there a moral to the story of Stephanie Mohr? Oddly enough, the former police officer and her prosecutor had surprisingly similar views on judging the actions of law enforcement.
"We need to understand the difficult circumstances that police officers face," says the federal prosecutor. "At the same time, we have to understand that a crime is a crime and nobody, especially the people who enforce the law, can be above the law."
"I think it is very difficult to judge the actions of police officers in the line of duty,” says Mohr. “I think there should be checks and balances. I think there should be oversight, but I think the people who judge them or who are responsible for investigating or sitting on a jury need to be better educated of everything that goes into being a police officer."
Mohr served the required 85 percent of her sentence and eight and a half years. She will remain on supervised probation for the next two years.
She has already secured a job and hopes to one day buy a home close to her son.