Police need policing, NAACP says

August 14, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

In the wake of two alleged incidents of police brutality -- including one in which a man died on Christmas Day in police custody -- the president of the Howard County NAACP says it's time to create an independent board to oversee internal police department investigations.

The civil rights group's interest stems from the two unrelated cases, which were resolved recently -- one in an out-of-court settlement of a 1990 lawsuit and the other a grand jury's decision against indicting four officers in the death of 24-year-old Jose Inez Melendez.

"You'll never get disclosure from an organization that's trying to protect itself under the guise of investigating itself," said Bowyer G. Freeman, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"There are some concerns anytime you have the police investigating the police. That's rather ludicrous to me," said Mr. Freeman, who called a board meeting of the local chapter Thursday night.

The 32 NAACP board members decided to renew a push for creation of a civilian police review board that would serve as an independent oversight panel, Mr. Freeman said. The organization has sought such a board for at least four years, he said.

The latest internal police investigation involved the suffocation death of Mr. Melendez, who died face down on a stretcher while being taken to Howard County General Hospital for treatment of a shoulder injury suffered during his arrest by four officers at a Jessup mobile home park.

Howard County police Chief James N. Robey said he intends to officially close the case, which was reviewed by a grand jury Aug. 4.

"It was a tragedy that Mr. Melendez died while in Howard County custody, but we found no misconduct by the police," Chief Robey said.

Chief Robey also said he fears the public has misinterpreted the July 22 settlement of the 1990 brutality complaint lodged against the police department by the family of Mickey Bowie, 19, of Columbia.

Mr. Bowie's family complained that police used excessive force to arrest Mr. Bowie and his twin brother, Carl Jonathan Bowie, when officers broke up a rowdy party at a Jessup motel.

The case drew even more scrutiny four months later when "Jon" Bowie was found hanging from a baseball backstop at Oakland Mills High School. The death was officially ruled a suicide.

The $6.5 million lawsuit was settled out of court, and terms of the case were sealed in court records.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said the county, which had spent about $30,000 preparing for trial, agreed to the undisclosed settlement because it was cheaper than going to court.

"The police had nothing to do with that settlement," Chief Robey said.

The Melendez case is still very much alive, said Joseph Malouf, a Washington attorney representing Mr. Melendez's estate and his family, including his wife, Maria, and three children, and his brother Jorge Menendez, all of Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Malouf said he will file a civil suit against the county police and fire departments, charging assault, battery, negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

The incident began about 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve when police arrived at the mobile home of Mr. Melendez's nephew at the Deep Run Mobile Home Park in Elkridge. Relatives said Mr. Melendez, 24, had been drinking heavily and had thrown his 18-month-old son to the floor. The child was treated for facial and head injuries at Howard County General Hospital.

Officers Victor Riemer, Jerry Price, Michael Vichich and William Schumacher, assisted by a Spanish-speaking officer, Cpl. Alvaro Bellido-Deluna, tried to restrain and handcuff Mr. Melendez.

Family members allege that officers beat Mr. Melendez, slamming him to the floor, twisting his arms back and stomping )) on his neck. Afterward, when they say Mr. Melendez was still, police ordered them to leave the living room and go to a back room, they said.

Police said two officers suffered minor injuries in the struggle.

Mr. Melendez, who was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 221 pounds, was handcuffed, placed on his stomach and strapped to a stretcher, according to police.

He arrived at Howard County General Hospital an hour later for treatment of a possible shoulder injury, police reported.

Paramedics said Mr. Melendez was unresponsive and in respiratory arrest. Within minutes, he was pronounced dead.

In January, the State Medical Examiner ruled his death accidental, saying he suffered "compressional and positional asphyxiation."

His weight, combined with a blood alcohol level of 0.34 percent -- three times the legal standard for drunkenness in driving cases -- played a part in his death, medical officials said.

Deputy Chief Edgar Shilling, of the county's fire and rescue service, said his department's internal investigation turned up no incorrect procedures by medical technicians.

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