Police actions at Denton dance under investigation State police will conduct the probe

January 28, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

DENTON -- Acting on a request by town police Chief William C. Davis, Maryland State Police will investigate allegations that Denton officers used excessive force when they responded to a teen dance that erupted into a melee here Sunday night.

Youths who attended the dance at the Denton Fire Hall charged that police unnecessarily used batons and spray canisters of an eye irritant when they attempted to disperse a mostly black crowd that had been drawn outside the hall to watch other youths fight.

Police said the crowd grew belligerent after volunteer firemen, acting as chaperones, stopped the dance because of fighting and refused to refund the $4 admission fee.

Because reports claim that police singled out black youths for rough treatment, Sunday's incident has strained racial tensions in this county seat of 3,000 residents.

The Sunday night dances -- which have been held as fire company fund-raisers once and sometimes twice a month for nearly two years -- have attracted many teens from throughout Caroline County and the surrounding area. Nearly 300 people attended Sunday's dance because there was no school the following day.

Although many of the youths present were in their early teens, witnesses said the two Denton police who first arrived at the fire hall were unable to control the crowd and had to call for backups from seven nearby law enforcement agencies, including the state police.

Two juveniles, both black, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Several others were treated for eye injuries.

Chief Davis, who asked in a letter that the state police look into the incident, said yesterday he hoped the inquiry would demonstrate that the eight-man police force is responsive to citizens' questions about how it conducts itself.

"Regardless of whether the allegations are true, we have to listen to the people," said the chief, who did not witness Sunday's disturbance. "It's their police department."

State police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver agreed to conduct the investigation yesterday after he received a copy of Chief Davis' request.

Colonel Tolliver, who had been visiting in Cambridge Sunday, was among the state police who showed up at the fire hall in neighboring Caroline County to help quiet the crowd.

About 150 teens and their parents turned out at a meeting Monday in Denton to air their grievances about how police handled the crowd. Among other complaints, some youths charged that one officer pointed his handgun at teens and that firefighters deliberately turned a fire hose on them.

There also are unconfirmed reports that two officers were "jumped" by youths during the confusion before police were able to disperse the crowd.

Denton Mayor Randolph P. Moore said he could not comment in detail on the incident because of the investigation, but he defended the officers' actions.

"We think our officers acted appropriately, given the particular situation they were in."

Mr. Moore, a Denton native, said he and other community leaders are looking for ways to address concerns that the Sunday disturbance was an outbreak of smoldering racism in the county.

"We're making sure we keep open lines of communication with the African-American community and with all communities," he said. "We're going to try to take a bad thing and make something positive of it."

County NAACP President James Perkins said he supports the state police investigation, but speculated that it will take more than a police inquiry to resolve racial concerns in Denton.

"I get very disturbed when I walk the streets of Denton. I don't see anything black in the way of police," he said, referring to the all-white police department.

"I look in the stores, and I see very few black employees."

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