Confrontational policing may be inciting incidents

September 10, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

ZERO-TOLERANCE policing is not the style that wins hearts and minds. Well, at least it hasn't won over James and Myrtle Johnson.

The Johnsons are the mother and stepfather of the two men arrested in the West Baltimore fracas Aug. 31 reported the next day in this newspaper.

"Two officers were injured yesterday," the story read, "when a group of West Baltimore residents beat them as they tried to arrest a man for loitering, police said. Western District Officers Laurence M. Adams ... and Frankie K. Wilson ... were trying to arrest a man about 1:20 p.m. in the 500 block of N. Monroe St. but the man resisted, and several residents attacked the officers, police said. Adams suffered a fractured facial bone and Wilson torn leg ligaments, police said."

Andre Cotton, 30, and his brother John Cotton, 27, were arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Both, Myrtle Johnson said, have since been released on bail.

You will notice the phrase "police said" several times in the reporter's account. That is the official police version of what happened. The Johnsons have a different one. (Neither Adams nor Wilson was available for comment for this column.) If their account of what happened just before the arrest is true, then the entire scenario might have been avoided by some tried and true community policing, not the confrontational style that Mayor Martin O'Malley has urged Commissioner Ed Norris to bring to Baltimore.

"I was on my way to pick up some medicine for my swollen glands," Myrtle Johnson recalled. "Johnny was across the street. I waved to him, and he waved back and smiled."

Officers Adams and Wilson were parked at Monroe Street and Lauretta Avenue. John Cotton was talking to some guys on a nearby stoop. Adams, according to the Johnsons' daughter, Antoinette Cotton, had just ordered the men to "Get the ---- off the corner."

As John Cotton walked across the street smiling, Myrtle Johnson and Antoinette Cotton clearly heard Adams say "What the ---- are you smiling at?" Both cops jumped from their car and ordered John Cotton to put his hands on the vehicle. One grabbed him around the neck and the other grabbed his leg. All three fell to the ground. Myrtle Johnson says that both officers beat John Cotton and that he threw no punches. But Antoinette Cotton said John and his brother Andre, who came from around the corner on Lauretta Avenue and jumped in the fray, "threw a few."

Cotton and her mother said that the day before, one of the same officers had chased another man down Lauretta Avenue, through the alley that runs behind Myrtle Johnson's house and up another that leads back to Monroe Street. During the chase, a van blocked the officer and caused him to fall, hurting his arm. Both the officer and the captured suspect emerged from the alley walking and huffing, causing onlookers a moment of mirth.

"They weren't laughing because the officer fell," the daughter said. "They were laughing because he didn't have any run in him."

Myrtle Johnson feels the officer may have thought John Cotton was still laughing at him from the previous day's incident. But, she insists, he wasn't.

"He was smiling at me," Myrtle Johnson said. And, she added, since he was crossing the street, he couldn't have been loitering. Not that her sons haven't been arrested before for that offense. Both, she said, have been arrested for loitering, traffic violations, drug offenses and failure to pay child support.

"I ain't trying to say they're no angels," Myrtle Johnson said of her two sons. But she's adamant in her belief that John did nothing to prompt the police action 11 days ago. From where she sits, the whole thing could have been avoided if the police attitude toward young black men wasn't aggressive and confrontational. She and her husband said they have seen cops stop young black men, throw them to the ground, kick them in the side and have them drop their pants and underwear in search of drugs.

"I've seen them bang guys' heads into the hoods of cars and grind their noses into the concrete," James Johnson said. "I've sat right on those steps outside and seen it."

White drug suspects - Baltimore does have those, and plenty of them - are treated, the Johnsons claim, almost with kid gloves. They're allowed to take a seat on the curb when they're stopped and addressed with some courtesy.

There are some positives in this tale. Myrtle Johnson, who was screaming at Adams and Wilson that her son had done nothing as her husband tried to restrain her, said that if the officers had pulled their guns "they would have shot my son in front of my face." She believes they didn't because her sons prevented them, but it's just as likely they felt no need to.

Antoinette Cotton said she engaged in a shouting match with a third officer who threatened to lock her up. He came back later, apologized and gave her the number of a police sergeant she could call to file a complaint if she felt her brothers were treated unjustly.

It's encouraging to know that at least some officers on the Baltimore Police Department take the serve in "serve and protect" seriously.

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