Aggressive law enforcement and abusing citizens' rights are often close to the edge


May 29, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

THE CITY police officer, who has the build of a football #F lineman, tells a group of young people on McElderry Street to move because they are blocking the sidewalk.

At first, no one obeys. So the officer, 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, gets out of his patrol car and repeats the order. His gun is holstered, and there is a blackjack in his right rear pocket.

The leader of the group says something. The officer cannot hear the words but assumes the worst, that the young man is defying him and wants trouble. Suddenly the confrontation escalates to violence.

The young man, who is 5-foot-7, is grabbed, thrown against a chain-link fence, hit repeatedly, arrested on charges of assaulting an officer, patched up in a hospital emergency room and then jailed, to be bailed out by his family on Mother's Day.

In a city besieged by crime and drugs, no competent police officer can shrink from tough confrontations. But where is the line between aggressive law-enforcement and excessive force, between commanding respect for the uniform and abusing the rights of citizens?

Baltimore Police Officer Nicholas J. Tomlin, 23, stands accused of stepping over the line during the incident on McElderry Street last May. The man he arrested, Robert L. Washington, 22, was later acquitted by a jury in Baltimore Circuit Court, even though Tomlin accused him of striking the first blow.

Recently the police Internal Investigation Division upheld an excessive-force complaint against Tomlin. And Washington, who suffered a bruised and bloodied eye, lacerated lip and bruised ribs, is suing Tomlin, the city and the police department for a total of $11.85 million in Baltimore Circuit Court.


Tomlin is white and Washington is black. Excessive-force complaints against the city police force often stem from high-stress confrontations between white officers and black citizens or suspects.

Washington's attorney, Edward Smith Jr., says Tomlin's actions last spring were those of a "big bully with a badge."

"He had to assert his authority in front of the children in that community," says Smith. "But when you're that big, why do you have to do it? It just didn't have to happen."

Representing Tomlin is Herb Weiner, counsel for Baltimore City Lodge No. 3 Fraternal Order of Police. Though not commenting on the incident directly, Weiner points out that street duty is a dangerous occupation, and officers are trained to take control of a situation when they see a threat developing.

In the last five years, nearly 1,500 officers have been injured, 24 have been shot, three killed and others blinded, paralyzed or maimed, Weiner says. He adds that complaints against officers for excessive force, discourtesy or neglect of duty occur at the rate of only one for every 2,600 calls for police service.

"I don't see any great pattern of abuse," Weiner says. "There have certainly been cases where an officer was guilty of excessive force, but it's very rare, and certainly not the way that many citizens would portray it."

In 1990, the Internal Investigation Division received 94 excessive-force cases against officers. Forty-four cases were dropped for lack of evidence, and 50 are still being reviewed.

Roughly two of every 100 complaints are upheld by the division. This usually leads to disciplinary action against the officer, but expulsion from the force is almost unheard of.


The findings of the Internal Investigation Division are reviewed by a largely civilian board, most of whose members are lawyers. "I think IID does a fairly good job," says one of the board members, who did not want to be identified. "I can't accuse them of cover-ups. But can the police police the police? I don't know.

"Why do street situations get out of hand? It's a terrible job being a police officer," the board member says. "We have a very violent city. In [some police districts], there's a war going on. Cops get more paranoid and citizens don't trust the police."

The Evening Sun has pieced together the incident on McElderry Street and its aftermath from court records, police reports, medical records and more than 25 interviews. Tomlin and his partner at the time, Officer Rudolph Grue, would not comment, but their version of what happened is recorded in a police report and the videotape of Washington's trial.

For all concerned, May 12 of last year is unforgettable.

The scene is a nondescript stretch of McElderry (pronounced Mc-EL-derry), a short one-way street that hugs the back of Oldtown Mall on one side, and several two-story apartment buildings on the other. The rear entrances of those shops in the mall bring most of the traffic to McElderry Street: delivery trucks by day, and prowling patrol cars at night.


It is dusk when Washington and a group of 9 teen-agers gather near the curb in the 500 block of McElderry, directly

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