Commanders question indictment

Assault charge filed against officer part of minor case, they say

September 30, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

This week's indictment of a Baltimore police officer on an assault charge has department commanders wondering why a seemingly minor brutality case became a felony charge.

Central District Officer Clyde Rawlins Jr. was indicted Wednesday for allegedly assaulting 19-year-old Larry Nathaniel during an arrest.

No one disputes that Nathaniel suffered a black eye when he was arrested in July on disorderly conduct and resisting charges. Rawlins described the scuffle and injury in his own report.

The department investigates between 300 and 400 complaints of excessive force each year, about 20 percent of which result in findings against officers. Few result in criminal charges, usually reserved only for the most serious cases or those involving corruption.

Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he has not reviewed the entire file on Nathaniel's arrest. Asked whether criminal charges were warranted in this case, Norris said: "From what I've seen, I'm not so sure."

Other high-ranking commanders echoed his feelings, saying that the department has many more serious cases winding their way through Internal Affairs.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Ritter said she could not comment on specifics but noted that her office selected the Rawlins case using the same criteria used in any other investigation.

In April, Ritter won a conviction against a police officer for misconduct in office for his role in the beating of a man in October last year. The officer has resigned but has not been sentenced.

Police union officials have lashed out at prosecutors in the past for indicting officers, but this is one of the first times that department commanders have publicly raised questions about a case.

Rawlins, 25, was indicted on charges of second-degree assault, perjury and misconduct. The indictment alleges that Rawlins unnecessarily hit Nathaniel and then lied about it.

Rawlins wrote that he and another officer stopped on Argyle Avenue after seeing a suspected drug dealer discard something in a gutter.

The officer wrote that Nathaniel, who lives on the block and wasn't involved in the stop, shouted obscenities at police, "causing a disturbance and a crowd to gather."

Rawlins' report says Nathaniel was threatened with arrest when he refused to leave the area and was wrestled to the ground after refusing to take his right hand out of his pants pocket. Police suspected him of hiding a weapon.

The officer's lawyer, Henry Belsky, called the indictment "a nickel-and-dime case."

Prosecutors "continue to put more effort in going after cops then they do criminals," said police union President Officer Gary McLhinney. "We're confident that the actions of this officer will be vindicated."

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