One man's ordeal is ending, another's is beginning

May 31, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

THE JURY returned and Robert L. Washington stood in the courtroom, awaiting his fate.

Accused of assaulting a city patrolman and resisting arrest, Washington prepared for the worst.

He peered at the jurors' solemn faces. They had deliberated for only an hour following three days of testimony in which the defendant and the officer gave very different versions of a struggle in the 500 block of McElderry St. last May.

To Washington, it seemed to take forever for the jury foreman to say . . . "Not guilty."

With those words, the defendant buried his head in his hands. Washington's trial was over.

The ordeal of Officer Nicholas J. Tomlin had just begun.

By rejecting Tomlin's version, the jury was saying in effect that the patrolman may have stepped over the line between aggressive law-enforcement and using excessive force.

Since the incident on McElderry Street, Tomlin has been:

* Removed from street patrol in Southeastern District and given a desk job there.

* Transferred at his request to another district.

* Investigated by the police Internal Investigation Division, which recently upheld Washington's allegation that Tomlin used excessive force.

* Named as a co-defendant in an $11.85 million civil suit leveled by Washington this month against the city and police department.

Tomlin now walks a beat in the Northeastern District, where he transferred in March.

As a neighborhood services officer, he is part of an innovative program providing communities with regular foot patrolmen. Tomlin also works the Memorial Stadium area during Oriole games.

"He has done an excellent job here, and has made some real good arrests," says Lt. John Papier of the Northeastern District. Papier says Tomlin made two drug arrests in April, for cocaine and marijuana possession.

Papier calls Tomlin "a real personable guy, very likable, with the poise and assertiveness of a football player.

"He volunteered for this job," says Papier. "At Southeastern, they had him inside as a turnkey. He wanted to get outside in the fresh air."

Tomlin, 23, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 300 pounds, played varsity football as a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he starred for the undefeated Engineers in 1984. Tomlin is remembered as a "team player" by his high school coaches and was named to The Evening Sun's All-Metropolitan first team as an offensive tackle in his senior year. He graduated in 1985 and attended Rutgers University before joining the city police force in 1988.

According to the police Legal Affairs Division, Tomlin this month was served with three departmental charges stemming from the incident on McElderry Street near Oldtown Mall: failing to refrain from the use of unnecessary force, discourtesy to members of the public, and "general misconduct reflecting discredit on the department by his actions that night."

CHARGES SEEN AS UNFAIR

The charges anger some of Tomlin's fellow officers.

"We had sent him out there to do what he was doing, to move people along," says another officer in the Southeastern District. "We had complaints from people about loitering in the Oldtown Mall area."

The officer, who requested anonymity, says Tomlin "was very interested in his job and wasn't one to just put in his time. He was busy doing things we wanted him to do."

Tomlin was on routine patrol at twilight last May 12 when he spotted Washington with a group of teen-agers on McElderry Street. Tomlin told everyone to move along and stop loitering.

The young people were members of a softball team coached by Washington, who muttered something the officer couldn't hear. A confrontation ensued and Washington was hit, arrested and jailed. Washington, 22, who is 5-foot-7, says the attack was unprovoked and peppered with racial remarks. Tomlin denies making the remarks and says he used only enough force to subdue the smaller man.

Two days after the incident, Washington filed an excessive-force complaint against Tomlin, which triggered the investigation by the police Internal Investigation Division. Washington, a part-time house painter, says the acquittal in his own criminal trial convinced him to file the multimillion-dollar civil suit.

Last year, the police department completed investigations in 44 cases involving allegations of excessive force. None of the cases resulted in disciplinary action against an officer.

LENGTHY, INTRICATE PROCESS

The process by which the police police themselves is both lengthy and intricate, and the burden of proof is on the complainant.

The evaluation of an excessive-force complaint can take more than a year. For example, the investigation of Tomlin's case began in May 1990. The complaint was upheld recently by the Internal Investigation Division, and there are several steps still to go. Typically during these lengthy inquiries, officers remain on the job.

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