Racism or proper procedure?

January 14, 1994

The parents of Antonio Lamar Rice have implied that their 16-year-old son, a suspect in the shooting of a restaurant manager at Owings Mills Mall, wouldn't have been treated as he was by Baltimore County police if he were, say, a white lacrosse player at Dulaney High School instead of a black football player at Randallstown High.

Tony Rice's treatment was as follows: The teen-ager, an employee of the American Cafe where the shooting happened, was identified by the victim as the assailant. On that basis, five county police officers arrested young Rice at his school, leading him away in handcuffs and ankle chains. While he was being held for almost 10 hours in Towson, police released his name to the media. He was finally freed only after providing a solid alibi.

No doubt Mr. and Mrs. Rice aren't the only people who see race as a prime factor in the police department's handling of the matter. We're not among them, however. We believe county police would have taken similar measures if a known, at-large suspect in any attempted murder were a white kid from the valleys or a black kid from the Liberty Road corridor. The crime took place in a jurisdiction where homicides are relatively infrequent, compared to big cities; thus, most homicides are "red ball" cases attracting special attention.

Still, questions about certain police actions will linger. For example, was it necessary to arrest Tony Rice at school? There was no reason not to do so. Indeed, once the identity of a suspect in such a crime has been established, police would be remiss not to apprehend him as soon as possible -- although the use of ankle chains seems excessive.

Why was the youth made to wait so long before getting to make a phone call? Also, should police have released his name before he was formally charged? Department officials might have been too eager to show they had quickly solved a much-publicized crime at a popular county mall. But this error is more the result of overzealousness than racism. County officials must nonetheless ensure that police adhere to departmental regulations on withholding names of suspects who have not been formally charged with wrongdoing.

New Police Chief Michael Gambrill, in the first community-relations crisis of his tenure, should review the matter to determine how his department might better have handled it. Not only would that be a good-faith gesture to citizens, it would also go a long way toward preventing a repeat of the problems raised by the Tony Rice incident.

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