Incident prompts second thoughts about justice, use of force by police

April 25, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

A PERPLEXED Billy Murphy rode an elevator in the Baltimore County Courts Building Thursday and asked a question of the young man standing next to him.

"Did you do anything wrong?" the attorney queried.

"No," replied Dante Partlow.

"Then why did you take the probation before judgment? And why are you happy about it?" Murphy wanted to know.

"I'm not happy about it," Partlow said.

Ten minutes earlier, Partlow had stood in Judge John Grason Turnbull II's courtroom with his lawyer, Warren Brown, beside him. Partlow agreed to probation before judgment in the 1998 Christmas night incident that left him handcuffed on the floor of the Eastpoint Movies in the 7900 block of Eastern Blvd. and charged with assaulting two police officers, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. He has pictures, he says, of his face swollen and bruised from the beating police gave him.

Cpl. David Rose of the Baltimore County Police Department, in his statement of charges, said Partlow walked toward the theater security guard with clenched fists. The security guard was a moonlighting Sgt. James Pianowski, who has a day job as a homicide detective with the county Police Department.

Partlow swung at Pianowski, and Rose took him to the ground. Partlow resisted arrest and kicked at Rose several times, the charging documents said. But Partlow and his girlfriend, Delora Sanchez, said the charging documents tell a partly false story and by no means the whole one.

Both say Pianowski refused to let Partlow's girlfriend use the restroom after they left a 10: 30 p.m. show about midnight. Partlow left the men's room and found Pianowski in a heated discussion with Sanchez. Partlow and Pianowski then quarreled vehemently. At Sanchez's urging, Partlow was leaving when Rose arrived. Pianowski then rushed up to Rose.

"This s.o.b. won't leave," Partlow claims Pianowski said to Rose. Partlow and Sanchez said Rose jumped on Partlow's back and, according to Sanchez, punched him in the head and yelled for him to lie down. Partlow started to resist, but Sanchez screamed at him not to.

"I thought they were going to kill him," Sanchez said. One officer then put his knee on Partlow's neck. Pianowski bent Partlow's fingers back, the couple charged. The alleged physical abuse aside, both made perhaps the most serious charge against Pianowski: He used the dreaded N-word. According to Partlow, Pianowski said something like this:

"Look at you now, nigger. You're nothing but a big [punk]. Whatcha gonna do now?"

Sanchez, who was by this time outside the theater, remembered that she had her face pressed against the glass, watching everything, when Pianowski allegedly said, "You should have hit me when you had the chance, nigger."

Pianowski and Rose, through department spokesman Bill Touhey, said they considered the matter closed and declined to comment. Thomas Elder, Eastpoint's manager, who was in the theater that night -- and who Sanchez said was "very polite and helpful" -- said he heard no racial slur. His account corroborates Rose's.

Partlow alleged that one of the officers speculated whether he was "one of those Mulberry Street hustlers."

Actually, he's a Westminster lad who was all-Carroll County in football. He's a sophomore at Carroll County Community College, has a football scholarship to Mississippi State University and will head there in the fall. He will have no criminal record, thanks in part to Brown, who argued for the probation before judgment.

"My thinking was to keep this kid's record clean," Brown said Thursday. Brown added that once someone gets a criminal record, it's hard getting housing or a job.

"It's almost like being a second-class citizen," Brown declared. "I'm trying to keep these guys who don't have a criminal record from getting one." Assistant State's Attorney Katy O'Malley agreed that the goal of the prosecution and the defense was to spare Partlow a criminal record.

But the 19-year-old is not happy. He maintains his innocence, insists he "got punished for doing nothing," has second thoughts about taking Brown's advice not to file an internal department complaint and now has a different view of police and the excessive use of force.

"I think it [police brutality] happens to a lot of people and it's not publicized," Partlow reflected. "I think if I was young, white and male, it wouldn't have happened."

Sanchez, a Dunbar High School graduate who is a Towson University freshman majoring in speech pathology, said she is hesitant to talk to police, even if she's the victim of a crime. Seeing white police after Christmas night 1998 "struck fear in my heart." (Partlow and Sanchez said no black police were on the scene.) Law-abiding citizens, she observed, shouldn't have to fear police.

"I'm not stealing," Sanchez said. "I'm not vandalizing. I shouldn't have to worry about the police."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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