When police are accused

July 13, 1994

Given the tensions between the Sandtown-Winchester community and Western District police, law enforcement and political leaders in the city were correct to respond quickly to demands for investigations into the death of Jesse Chapman.

Yet the fact that the police commissioner, the mayor, the state's attorney and the U.S. attorney's office have begun these investigations by no means suggests the five police officers accused by some witnesses were in fact guilty of brutal and unprofessional behavior in arresting Mr. Chapman.

Still, the fact is that the single most likely proximate cause of destructive urban rioting is the belief by many in minority communities that the white law-enforcement establishment has used cruel and excessive force against a black victim. Remember Rodney King? When a charge is made, the best strategy is to investigate immediately, and keep the restive community -- indeed, the community at large -- informed of the progress.

Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department of 1992, the Baltimore police force has a reputation for sensitivity in the area of race relations. The new police commissioner, Thomas Frazier, is an advocate of "community policing"; even critics of this form of law enforcement who believe it does not deter crime give it high marks for bettering police-community relations. Mr. Frazier has already ordered the five officers involved in the fatal arrest off the streets until investigations are completed. This decision was made in part as a response to black elected officials' requests.

We can think of few cities where a minority community could have more confidence in its political leadership in a situation like this one. The mayor and state's attorney are both highly respected blacks of liberal inclinations and distinguished law enforcement backgrounds. Kurt Schmoke preceded Stuart Simms as state's attorney. Lynne Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, who has asked for an FBI investigation into the death of Mr. Chapman, is staunchly pro-civil rights and her track record includes getting two Howard County deputy sheriffs dismissed for racist behavior.

It goes without saying that in cases like this one, judgment on the police officers accused has to be withheld until all the facts are in. Allowing brutal police officers to use excessive force without fear of punishment is unacceptable and damaging to a community. But it would also be unacceptable and damaging to a community if police officers -- who have not been found guilty of anything -- were punished merely because they were involved in a high-profile and volatile case.

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