FBI to probe death of man in custody

July 09, 1994|By Peter Hermann and Scott Higham | Peter Hermann and Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Jim Haner, Marcia Myers, Michael James, Verne Kopytoff and Robert Hilson Jr. contributed to this article.

The FBI and state prosecutors said yesterday that they will investigate claims that a squad of police officers pummeled a man in West Baltimore last weekend shortly before he was pronounced dead in the back of a police van.

With tempers flaring in the North Fulton Street area, Baltimore police commanders also removed five officers from the streets yesterday, assigning them to desk posts while police investigators examine the claims.

Police commanders also released the names of the officers yesterday but said they don't know what took place on a sidewalk between the marble steps of two rowhouses in the Sandtown-Winchester section of the city. The officers have refused to provide homicide detectives with their versions of what happened.

This much is not in dispute:

About 11:30 on July 2, Jesse Chapman, 30, followed his girlfriend to the Western District police station. He fought with her in the lobby and fled. A squad of officers, the majority of them white, chased him. They caught up with Mr. Chapman, who is black, placed him in a police van and drove him back to the station, where he was pronounced dead at 11:57 p.m.

After several days of protests at the Western District station house, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier held a secret, closed-door meeting last night with community leaders. Afterward, he said he hoped that some of his efforts, such as removing the officers from their beats, would help calm the community.

"We have community unrest," he said. "It was a move to defuse the instant situation."

Among yesterday's developments:

* The FBI announced that it will investigate claims that Mr. Chapman was severely beaten and try to determine whether the officers violated his civil rights.

* The city state's attorney's office also launched an investigation, interviewing witnesses who say the police officers pummeled Mr. Chapman. The investigation could result in a grand jury probe.

* Mr. Frazier removed five officers from their beats, citing increasing pressure from angry community leaders.

* Results of a preliminary autopsy report contradict claims that Mr.Chapman was severely beaten, causing his death. The autopsy found minor scratches and bruises, but no evidence of a serious or prolonged beating.

* Several witnesses said in interviews with The Sun that the officers beat Mr. Chapman while he was lying on the sidewalk and then tossed his lifeless body into the police van.

The case caught the attention of federal prosecutors earlier this week.

Federal prosecutors contacted the FBI because of the incident involved the death of a suspect in police custody. FBI supervisors declined yesterday to disclose any details of their investigation.

Civil rights probe

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said her office independently contacted the FBI. She said the probe is being handled as a civil rights investigation.

The FBI will report its findings to her and the U.S. Justice Department, and will decide whether there are grounds for a civil criminal prosecution, she said.

State prosecutors said yesterday that they are also interested in the case. Prosecutors plan to interview witnesses and review evidence before deciding whether to pursue criminal charges. If so, the case would be presented to a grand jury, State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said.

"In any death of a police officer or a civilian that raises questions, we need to make a preliminary assessment to determine whether or not there's probable cause that a crime occurred," he said.

Mr. Simms said the FBI investigation would not interfere with his office's probe.

The incident set off several days of protests at the police station on Mount Street. With tempers rising and a hot weekend ahead, Mr. Frazier said he decided to heed the calls to remove the officers from their neighborhood patrols.

Officers given desk jobs

The commissioner announced yesterday that the five officers would be removed from their beats and assigned to the desk jobs.

The officers are Stanley Brandford, 33, a three-year veteran; PTC Diane Koonce, 39, a two-year veteran; Sean Ruane, 22, a one-year veteran; Samuel Shipley, 35, a three-year veteran; and Sean White, 25, a seven-year veteran. Officers Ruane, Shipley and White are white; Officers Brandford and Koonce are black.

The move followed an unusual episode Thursday night. Officer White chased a gun-carrying suspect into a rowhouse on 1305 FultonAve., where Mr. Chapman lived, police said. It was a coincidence, but it could have been embarrassing for the police if Officer White had fired his weapon while being under investigation in the Chapman incident.

"Had the officer resorted to force, the commissioner feels that it could have resulted in an explosive situation," police spokesman Sam Ringgold said yesterday.

None of the officers has agreed to provide the department with statements.

'Paranoid officers'

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