Police upset by probe

July 14, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Joel Obermayer contributed to this article.

The president of Baltimore's police union yesterday accused the police commissioner of eroding the department's morale by supporting a federal investigation into an alleged brutality case.

Lt. Leander Nevin, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, also described the alleged victim, Jesse Chapman, as a police informant. Mr. Chapman died July 2 after an incident involving five Western District police officers.

People claiming to have witnessed the incident maintain that the officers beat Mr. Chapman to death, but police say a preliminary autopsy report indicates that Mr. Chapman did not die of blunt-force trauma.

"We're especially sorry that Jesse Chapman was killed, because he was one of the best informants the Baltimore City Police Department ever had. And it was rumored that he was going to help bring down some high-profile people for involvement in drugs. So this is a double loss, to the community and to us," Mr. Nevin said at a news conference at the FOP's North Baltimore headquarters. He declined to provide details about his assertion that Mr. Chapman was an informant.

He also said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had cowered to political pressure by supporting a federal investigation. He called the probe a "political witch hunt" in which witness statements are tainted. "Now it appears that everyone is in collusion to destroy every confidence that the public has in our officers on the street," he said. "The people who are supposed to be with us should be with us, unless it is so flagrant that the good Lord couldn't be with us."

Mr. Nevin said officers might conclude that the department will never support them and, as a result, back off on aggressive policing.

"You have got old people trapped in these neighborhoods who (( have worked all their lives, and they can't even go to the store without at least being insulted," he said. "As least with the police, you feel you have a chance. We see this as undermining morale everywhere."

Police Department officials declined to comment on whether Mr. Chapman was an informant.

At a news conference called after the FOP's, Mr. Frazier called the incident the biggest crisis of his six-month tenure. He said the union's criticism was "nonsense" and that he took appropriate action to quell a potentially explosive situation.

"I don't think you can circle your wagons and deny everything and at the same time go out into the community and say you are open," Mr. Frazier said, adding that a majority of the department's 2,900 officers follow departmental rules.

"Maybe 1 or 2 percent are involved in misconduct," he said, "but to say that I don't protect the rank and file just isn't true."

Contacted after the FOP news conference, Mr. Chapman's mother, Judith Weston, declined to comment on whether her son was an informant. "I'm not getting into that. It sounds funny to me," she said.

Mr. Chapman, 30, was found dead in a police wagon after he was arrested in the 1100 block of N. Fulton Ave. Western District officers had chased him to that location after breaking up a fight between Mr. Chapman and his girlfriend that erupted inside the police station, in the 1000 block of N. Mount St.

His death touched off three days of protests in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood by people who claimed officers had beaten the man.

Tuesday, five witnesses refused to go to the state's attorney's office to be interviewed, saying they didn't trust the police.

"I believe what I heard," Mr. Frazier said of the witnesses surprise action on Tuesday. "I think that people are afraid. I think it's a shame that people feel that way about the department. We clearly have some rebuilding to do."

Yesterday, a local minister, Elder Clyde Harris, said he would meet with an assistant state's attorney tomorrow to set up a time for witnesses to meet with prosecutors in their own neighborhood.

Authorities were awaiting the final autopsy report.

The commissioner said he had seen a photo of Mr. Chapman's body taken by a family friend and shown to reporters by Ms. Weston. The photo shows bruises on his forehead and dark lumps under an eye.

"That's very much what we are interested in -- how did they occur," Mr. Frazier said.

He said the officers fought with Mr. Chapman before he was taken into custody. But the preliminary autopsy report showed the officers were not responsible for Mr. Chapman's death, the commissioner said.

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