Dead man's family files federal suit alleging brutality by county police

January 01, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

The family of an Alexandria man who died in the custody of Howard County police and rescue workers has filed a suit charging that county personnel violated his civil and constitutional rights.

The suit, filed on behalf of the estate of Jose Inez Melendez in federal court in Baltimore on Dec. 21, requests a jury trial to determine whether county authorities "wrongfully used force and assaulted and battered" Mr. Melendez while he was drunk on Dec. 24, 1993.

More than $36 million is sought in damages from the county, which is accused of negligence, in s said Joseph Malouf, the Virginia attorney handling the case. The county is guilty of faulty hiring practices and poor training in its police and fire departments, he wrote.

Police and fire officials were reluctant to comment on the suit.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker declined to comment about the allegations, but said, "I defend the hiring of police and police actions." Sgt. Steve Keller, a police spokesman, said the police department would not comment until the matter has been litigated.

According to medical officials, Mr. Melendez, 24, died face-down on a stretcher of "compressional and positional asphyxiation." His weight, 221 pounds, combined with a blood alcohol level of 0.34 percent -- three times the legal standard for a finding of drunken driving -- played a part in his death, the officials said.

The suit names Jorge Melendez, the man's brother, as plaintiff. He could not be reached for comment. Mr. Malouf did not return phone calls to his office last week.

Ramone Umana, Mr. Melendez's nephew, said that he hoped the suit would answer questions that his family raised when police confronted his uncle in the living room of his home in the Deep Run Mobile Home Park in Elkridge about a year ago.

"I want justice," Mr. Umana said. "I've been thinking about what happened. It doesn't go away. It's like it happened yesterday."

About 11:30 p.m. Dec. 24, 1993, relatives called police complaining that Mr. Melendez had been drinking heavily and had thrown his 18-month-old son to the floor.

Five Howard County officers responded and tried to restrain and handcuff Mr. Melendez, who they say resisted arrest and then complained of a shoulder injury.

Family members contend that the officers beat Mr. Melendez, slamming him to the floor and twisting his arms. They said that they were ordered to a back room when Mr. Melendez became still.

Police called an ambulance, and rescue workers strapped Mr. Melendez face-down on a stretcher and drove to Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, about five minutes away.

By the time they arrived at the hospital, paramedics said, Mr. Melendez was unresponsive and in respiratory arrest. Minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Internal investigations by the police and fire departments turned up no evidence of wrongdoing by workers. A grand jury hearing Aug. 4 exonerated the workers, but the incident prompted police and fire officials to review their handling of violent people, officials said.

"They should have been more prepared," Mr. Umana said. "The way they took him wasn't professional. I didn't like it at all."

The Melendez lawsuit is the third filed recently that alleges brutality by the police department.

In July, the county settled for an undisclosed amount a $6.5 million federal lawsuit alleging that police beat twin brothers while breaking up a party in a Jessup motel in 1990.

In August, a Pittsburgh research psychologist and his wife filed a $29 million federal lawsuit against the department and two of its officers, charging that the man was beaten and permanently injured during an arrest three years ago.

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