Settled Cases, Unsettling Questions

July 29, 1994

For county officials who agreed to an out-of-court settlement with a family that charged Howard police with brutality four years ago, the motivation undoubtedly was to close the book on the whole affair. Yet as so often happens in these contentious cases, suspicions linger.

Now that the family of Mickey and Carl Bowie, the alleged victims, have agreed to settle with the county, there will be no way of knowing for certain whether police were, in fact, guilty of the charges. The twin brothers, 19 at the time, claimed that three county officers used excessive force by beating, kicking and choking them as the police attempted to break up a party at a Jessup motel.

Four months later, Carl Bowie was found hanging from baseball backstop at Oakland Mills High School. The death was ruled a suicide, but Mr. Bowie's parents and friends suggested police involvement, touching off months of controversy. The family sought $6.5 million in damages from the county and police officers. The case was slated to go to court Aug. 15 before the settlement was reached. County officials now won't discuss the case, citing the settlement's confidential nature.

While police officials say some changes have been made in police training and equipment since the Bowie incident, they were unable to state whether any of those changes were directly related to that case. This is an unacceptable shortcoming. Too often in matters such as this, troubling questions are raised before the public, only to be resolved surreptitiously, often in out-of-court settlements. Though such a pattern may seem justified in light of the cost of litigation, it also breeds distrust.

Police Chief James N. Robey, who was unavailable for comment, needs to step forward and allay community concerns forthrightly.

Part of what fuels the Bowie controversy is a pervasive feeling that police have overstepped their professional bounds in other cases, particularly in those related to juveniles. Last December, several black parents were upset when their young boys failed to come home from middle school, only to discover that the youngsters had been taken into custody for questioning about a minor theft. Little has been heard about the case since then, despite protests by the NAACP. Settlements aside, these unsettling matters simply do not go away.

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