Expert in Trial of Hancock County Sheriff Candidate Says Use of Force Not Excessive
WHEELING — Former Hancock County sheriff’s Lt. Mark Cowden acted appropriately on Jan. 27, 2015, when he used force against a drunken driving suspect — including pushing him against a wall twice — a law enforcement use-of-force expert testified Friday in federal court.
“I don’t see repetitive abuse of force. I don’t see (Cowden) losing his cool. I see control techniques. I see a prisoner who is not cooperating,” said the defense’s expert witness, Timothy A. Dimoff, a national security law enforcement consultant and trainer, regarding Cowden’s escort of Ryan Hamrick from a patrol car into the sheriff’s office for processing. “It’s clear that it was all proper, all based on (Cowden’s) training,” he said in U.S. District Court Judge Frederick P. Stamp’s courtroom.
Cowden, 51, is a Republican candidate for Hancock County sheriff, running against his former boss, Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, a Democrat. Cowden was indicted in June on federal charges of deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice. He’s accused of using excessive force against Hamrick and falsifying documents regarding his actions.
Cowden also took the stand in his own defense Friday.
Although the lead FBI investigator in the case, Edward Ryan, testified earlier this week that he heard of a local investigation into Cowden’s use of force through the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and that the information was based on details from one of Cowden’s family members, Cowden testified Friday that he believes the federal case is politically motivated by the sheriff’s office, and that it’s an effort to thwart his chances at unseating Fletcher.
“I truly believe this got going because certain people didn’t like (that) I’m running for sheriff,” Cowden told the jury.
“There are things underlying this case, that maybe had an ulterior motive.”
Defense attorney Michael Nogay has said the federal case was brought against Cowden long after the incident in January 2015, and not until after Cowden retired from the sheriff’s office in order to run against Fletcher.
“You believe you are a victim of conspiracy?” prosecutor Jarod Douglas of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia asked Cowden on cross-examination.
“I believe I am to a certain extent,” Cowden responded, asserting that Hamrick was acting illegally by resisting arrest. “I took it as (Hamrick) trying to … hurt myself or other officers.”
Dimoff, meanwhile, counts 20 years of service as an Akron, Ohio, police officer among his credentials, and was trained in use-of-force by Samuel Faulkner, the creator of the Action-Response Continuum that has become the national standard for helping police recognize levels of resistance or aggression and formulate a proper response.
He said he reviewed nearly 1,000 pages of discovery from Cowden’s case, as well as videos and photographs, and in his opinion, Hamrick was “fighting” Cowden and sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Cline.
“By pulling away, he is fighting. A head-butt … is a severe fighting technique,” Dimoff said, noting a video shows Hamrick attempting to use his head as a weapon.
Dimoff said he saw Hamrick resisting being escorted, and escalated aggression.
“And I would consider that fighting,” he said.
A medical expert in blunt-force trauma also testified Friday in Cowden’s defense. Dr. Jack E. Riggs, a neurologist and professor of neurology at West Virginia University, has experience in combat hospitals in Kuwait and Albania.
Riggs he reviewed case discovery and, in his opinion, Cowden’s actions could not have caused any new injuries to Hamrick, apart from the injuries Hamrick got earlier that night from an 11-minute, intense fight with West Virginia State Trooper Michael Hoder.
Specifically, Riggs said, a “laceration” above Hamrick’s left eye that witnesses for the prosecution testified was new after Hamrick’s use of force, couldn’t have been caused by Cowden because Hamrick’s head did not hit the wall at the correct angle for that to have occurred. Hamrick’s head hit the wall while turned to the opposite side during one impact, and hit at the center during another, according to Riggs.
It’s more likely that a laceration occurred during Hoder’s arrest, Riggs said, when Hamrick’s head was slammed on a car, then on a patrol car and the ground.
Hamrick also “had been struck several times … with (a) closed fist” by Hoder, Riggs said, citing case documents. “Whatever occurred was very aggressive and violent and did produce some soft tissue injuries.”
There is no video of that arrest, because the dashboard camera was inoperable, Hoder testified earlier this week. And there are no photos from the scene, because the camera that Cline used to photograph the scene was broken a month after the incident and he had not yet downloaded or handed over the photos, Cline testified.
Riggs said active bleeding that came from Hamrick after Cowden’s use of force, was a reactivated nosebleed that was first documented in Hoder’s use-of-force report. “I don’t believe there is any additional injury somewhere … I believe his nose begins to bleed again,” he said. “There is no evidence that a new nosebleed occurred in the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office.”
In addition to the two slams against the wall, Cowden also allegedly struck Hamrick on the back of the head, but there is no evidence that it caused injury, Riggs testified. Dimoff said this was an appropriate “soft” technique, as were Cowden’s other actions against Hamrick, in order to get Hamrick under control.
“Soft techniques” include grabbing, pulling and wristlocks, in order to gain control. And Dimoff said it was an appropriate level of force, either matching, or one level above, the suspect’s force, according to the national standard.
“If I thought I saw (Cowden) smash a head again, and again, and again, I’d be testifying for the other side,” Dimoff said, noting he has testified in numerous cases, both for and against police officers. “If he had done it six, maybe seven times, that would be excessive force.”
The trial continues Monday.