Following the advice of police-union lawyers, four city police officers have declined to cooperate with investigators probing the death of a 29-year-old drug suspect who died Monday night from internal injuries in the back of a paddy wagon, according to sources close to the investigation.
The cause of death of Robert E. Privett was still officially listed yesterday as "pending" by the state medical examiner's office. Mr. Privett had been subdued by at least three officers following his arrest at Jefferson and Port streets, an area noted for drug transactions.
"We're waiting for the results of further investigation," said John E. Smialek, the chief medical examiner. "Until that occurs, we're not going to comment."
Lt. William Robbins of the homicide unit said last night that his detectives are treating the matter as a priority investigation. "This has the potential where it could become a very sensitive issue," he said.
While there was no immediate evidence of police wrongdoing, the mistreatment of suspects has been a controversial topic since the videotaped beating of a man by officers in California last summer. Several officers are on trial as a result of that incident.
Sources close to the probe here say investigators have been hampered by an unwillingness on the part of the officers involved to give detailed statements regarding their actions. According to the sources, the officers are following the advice of police-union attorneys, who routinely tell officers involved in criminal investigations that they should not make voluntary statements.
"The situation right now is that there are no substantial reports from the officers," one source said last night. "But we now understand that some of the officers have indicated a willingness to come in with their attorneys and talk about the matter."
An autopsy revealed that Mr. Privett had sustained a ruptured spleen and four broken ribs. There were also minor abrasions on the victim's face and hands, and Mr. Privett's dentures were found lodged in his throat. The autopsy also identified fresh needle marks, indicative of intravenous drug use.
Toxicology reports, which would show the presence of drugs or other chemicals, were not yet complete yesterday. The pathologist who performed the examination, Dr. Ann Dixon, said the exact cause of death was "still pending further study."
City homicide detectives and prosecutors with the violent-crimes unit of the city state's attorney's office are leading the investigation into the death -- which followed a street altercation and a 45-minute police-wagon ride in which the injured man remained unconscious while the wagon made several stops to pick up other prisoners.
Mr. Privett, who had addresses in the 1900 bock of East Belvedere Avenue and the 4000 block of Falls Road, was pronounced dead Monday night in the rear parking lot of the Southeastern District police station on Eastern Avenue about 45 minutes after he had been subdued by officers, handcuffed and placed in the rear of the wagon, police said.
In the interim, four other people were arrested and placed in the rear of the wagon with the prone victim. Those other prisoners have told police that Mr. Privett, who was handcuffed, remained unconscious for the entire ride to the district lockup, sources said.
"Quite frankly," said one source, "the other prisoners thought he was dead."
Investigative sources said it was unclear whether the other prisoners communicated any concern to the driver of the vehicle. The vehicle's operator was identified yesterday by police as Officer John W. Kuhl, 53.
The incident began just after 8 p.m. when two undercover officers assigned to the Southeastern District -- David H. Childs, 31, and Kevin B. Evans, 30 -- watched an alleged narcotics transaction in the vicinity of Jefferson and Port streets.
As Mr. Privett allegedly walked to the 2800 block of East Fayette Street, he was confronted by Officer Thomas E. Jeffries III. Police said that the suspect slammed the 31-year-old officer in the chest with his elbow and that the two men then fell to the ground during the fracas.
Officers Childs and Evans soon arrived and assisted in restraining the suspect. The confrontation was described in police reports as "minor." Those reports noted that there were some lesser abrasions on the man's face and hands. Officer Jeffries received an injury to his arm and was on medical leave yesterday.
Another patrolman, Officer Robert L. Richburg, 36, a nine-year veteran of the district, was also identified as being present during the arrest. Prosecutors wish to interview him as well as the three officers identified in reports, sources said.
Officer Kuhl is not one of those men being sought for questioning by the state's attorney's office.
After the fracas on East Fayette Street, the district wagon, driven by Officer Kuhl, picked up the prisoner at 8:26 p.m. Mr. Privett was charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and drug possession.
Officer Kuhl then picked up four other suspects.