For Robert Washington, the chain-link fence outside his East Baltimore apartment is a permanent marker of his struggle with a city police officer.
"See this dent?" says Washington, 22, pointing to a depression in the fence. "This dent is me." His injuries required hospital treatment and still bother him, he says.
The incident last May in the 500 block of McElderry St. raises a key question about police-community relations in a city plagued by crime and drugs: Where is the line between aggressive law-enforcement and excessive force?
Washington, who is black, claims he was the victim of an unprovoked attack by Officer Nicholas J. Tomlin, 23, who is white. But Tomlin says Washington started the fight, resisted arrest and had to be pinned against the metal fence and punched into submission.
The Evening Sun has pieced together the incident from police and court records, in which Tomlin, 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, says he used only enough force to subdue Washington, who is 5-foot-7.
Washington says he was hit with a flashlight at the outset of the struggle and then was punched repeatedly. But the officer says the only blows he struck were with his hand, near the end of the fight when he was holding Washington against the fence.
"I slid my hand up his chest to his face, and struck him with my right fist," says Tomlin. "The face was the target of opportunity to stop the defendant."
"I didn't strike him anywhere else. I wasn't fighting him for the sake of fighting him. I wanted to get him locked up."
"As a police officer, you can't afford to lose a fistfight," says Tomlin. "There's a little bit more at stake because I'm wearing a sidearm when I'm out there.
"It doesn't take much [for a suspect] to figure out how to remove a weapon from a holster. If that weapon is removed, [the officer has] an 80 percent chance of being shot with it."
On that Saturday evening, Washington and nine teen-age members of a softball team he coached were talking on the sidewalk 50 feet from his apartment building.
At 8:25 p.m., Tomlin and his patrol partner drove up to check out the group because in the past there had been attempted burglaries at stores across the street.
Tomlin saw nothing suspicious but told the young people to move along, saying they were loitering and blocking the sidewalk. To the officer, Washington seemed defiant and eager for trouble, so Tomlin confronted him.
Washington denies doing anything provocative that night. Following the incident, he asked for a jury trial and was acquitted of all the charges against him: assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and failure to obey a lawful request.
Then Washington fought back through legal channels:
* He filed a complaint accusing Tomlin of using excessive force, an allegation recently upheld by the police Internal Investigation Division.
* He brought a civil suit this month against Tomlin, the city and the police department for a total of $11.85 million.
Washington says the officer made racial remarks, hit him with the flashlight or some other hard object, got him in a choke hold, punched him, slammed him against the fence and punched him some more.
Tomlin denies making any such remarks and says he used no more force than necessary.
Moreover, Tomlin insists that Washington triggered the fight by stepping to within an inch of him and defying the officer's order to move.
"When [Washington] told me that he wasn't going anywhere, I put my hands on him," says Tomlin. The officer contends that Washington then landed the first punch, striking him in the groin.
Officer Rudolph Grue, Tomlin's partner, saw no such punch from where he was standing at curbside. Grue did see Washington's arm hit Tomlin's arm when Washington attempted to pull out of the officer's grasp.
Tomlin says that he then ran Washington toward the metal fence in an effort to subdue him, but that the smaller man kept struggling and rammed his right arm into Tomlin's biceps.
The officer says the arrest had become a "violent struggle" at that point, requiring him to punch Washington. As the two men grappled against the fence, the officer moved his right fist close to Washington's face and struck at this "target of opportunity."
"I felt the situation had to be controlled immediately to avoid any other injuries," says Tomlin.
The patrolman says he was not carrying his flashlight that night because the bulb had burned out, and during the confrontation his nightstick remained wedged in the front seat of the police car. He did have a blackjack in his back pocket but says he did not take it out.
"I don't feel comfortable hitting another person with a stick, no matter what they teach in the [police] academy, unless it's a dire situation," says Tomlin. "I've seen the damage a blackjack can do. It would split him wide open."
Tomlin says he did use his blackjack during a previous arrest, "causing stitches."