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Woman files lawsuit in connection with 2002 incident at YMCA

November 10, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

A former Hagerstown woman has claimed in a federal lawsuit that her civil rights were violated when she was arrested by city police officers at the Hagerstown YMCA in April 2002.

Jillian Keene alleges in the lawsuit that her removal from the YMCA and subsequent arrest were racially motivated. Keene is black and the YMCA employee and the two police officers involved are white, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in April.

In May, the FBI began a civil rights investigation into the Hagerstown Police Department's actions in the incident, FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said last week. Maddox, who works out of the Baltimore office, said he could not discuss the details of the case and that the investigation could take months.

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The findings will be reported separately to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Those offices will determine if further action is necessary.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said he is confident his department will be cleared in both the lawsuit and the FBI probe.

"I can really tell you there is nothing in this. ... Anybody can file a lawsuit," Smith said Friday. "We'll be fine in the lawsuit, and I'm sure we'll be fine in the FBI stuff."

Keene, who lived at 39 Broadway in Hagerstown but said she since has moved to Pennsylvania, is demanding more than $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Keene could not be reached for comment.

Keene named as defendants the Hagerstown YMCA, the city of Hagerstown and Hagerstown police officers Howard Sollenberger and Charles Streightiff.

Streightiff still is on the police force, but Sollenberger has since retired, Smith said. Sollenberger's retirement had nothing to do with the incident, and both officers were cleared in an "exhaustive internal investigation" into the matter, Smith said.

Keene's attorney, Jeanett Henry, did not return repeated phone calls to her office seeking comment on the case. The lawyer representing the Hagerstown YMCA, Kristi Anderson, did not return messages left for her Friday.

Kevin Karpinski, who is representing Hagerstown and the two police officers, also said the officers acted appropriately.

"This isn't the first time where the suit contains a number that wholly ... it's just unrealistic," Karpinski said.

According to the lawsuit, Keene went to the YMCA on April 4, 2002, to pick up her daughter and friends. When she arrived, she "discovered that her daughter had been ejected from the facility and was waiting outside in the cold without her jacket."

Keene went to membership director Sharee O'Haver to discuss the problem, according to the court filing. Keene said O'Haver previously had singled her out of a group of white people in a locker room and asked her, "Do you belong here?"

O'Haver called police, and Sollenberger and Streightiff arrived. After speaking with O'Haver and Keene, the officers asked Keene to leave, according to the lawsuit.

When Keene said she did not want to leave immediately, O'Haver told officers that the family membership had been terminated and the officers arrested her.

The lawsuit alleges that Sollenberger "twisted and forcefully grabbed the membership cards from Keene's handcuffed hands, causing her to experience sharp pain ..." and Streightiff "held Keene by the shoulders, forcing her back with both his hands."

Keene was charged with disorderly conduct-failure to obey a lawful order, but the charge was dismissed in May 2002 in a Washington County District Court hearing.

As a result of the incident, Keene claims in the lawsuit that the YMCA, the city and the police officers violated a federal civil rights statute governing equal rights for minorities.

She also said that, in violation of federal law, the city enforced the law differently against blacks than against whites, did not properly train the two officers, violated the Maryland Declaration of Rights and allowed the officers to falsify police reports.

Keene also claimed she was battered by Sollenberger.

The lawsuit alleges Keene has "suffered physical and emotional injuries," including fright, anxiety and loss of self-esteem.

No trial date has been scheduled in the case.

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