`Reservoir of suspicion' and `reservoir of goodwill'

1999 killing highlights mistrust of police

July 21, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

It was Thanksgiving morning in 1999 and Housing Authority Officer Kenneth M. Dean III had his gun pointed at a teen-ager cornered in the back yard of a West Baltimore rowhouse.

The fear of that moment was "like when your car hits a patch of ice, only 10 times over," he recalls. "I had to get him before he was going to get me. Before he was going to hurt me or my partner."

The shots Dean then fired - killing Eli McCoy, 17 and unarmed - engendered a neighborhood tragedy, another example, some residents believed, of police brutalizing Baltimore's poor black residents.

The case illustrates the width of the gap of misunderstanding between officers such as Dean - who was stunned and embittered by public reaction to McCoy's death - and residents such as the boy's father, Elton McCoy, who is convinced that Dean's actions were motivated by ill will.

Dean's story is emblematic, too, of how difficult it is for police to fight crime aggressively in a dangerous city rife with anti-police sentiment.

Last week, a Baltimore circuit judge determined that, contrary to a civil jury verdict rendered in May, Dean did not maliciously kill McCoy. The judge lowered the jury award to McCoy's father from $7 million to $400,000.

To Dean, 33, the judge's decision to strike the jury's malice finding vindicates him. "The important part," he said, "was that I could say to people, to his father, `I did not go out there to intentionally hurt your son.'"

Elton McCoy doesn't believe him. "I think he meant to kill my son," McCoy said recently. "I think he had something on his mind. Why didn't he leave his problems at home?"

Public distrust of Baltimore police, a problem dating from at least the 1960s, seeps from street incidents such as the McCoy shooting into the entire criminal justice system, even courtrooms.

The same is true nationally, as victims of extreme cases of police brutality and shootings have become household names: Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo in New York, and Rodney King in Los Angeles.

Questioning potential jurors, Baltimore Circuit Judge William D. Quarles has noticed a trend over the years that has been echoed in national opinion polls. Although exceptions exist, he said, "there seems to be a reservoir of goodwill among the white community toward the police and a reservoir of suspicion among the African-American communities."

The problem has been exacerbated recently by highly publicized allegations of evidence-planting and perjury by police, and by the fatal shootings of McCoy and Larry J. Hubbard, 21, who was killed in October, 1999, as he struggled with an officer in East Baltimore.

Shootings such as McCoy's add to the perception that black males are victimized by police, said G. I. Johnson, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

His group meets regularly with city law enforcement officials to encourage active policing and to try to improve relations eroded by mutual fear, he said.

In January, Baltimore Circuit Judge Audrey J. S. Carrion asked the grand jury to investigate whether public confidence in the police has decreased. "The problems related to police misconduct and of the public's perception of it go far beyond mere ill will on a case-by-case basis," she wrote. "They pervade the very fabric of society."

In its report, the grand jury suggested ways to improve relations, including educating the public about the role of police. "At the same time," the jurors wrote, "the police must come to realize that every black male is not the enemy."

Dean, who is black, has been a housing officer for six years. He said he entered law enforcement to avoid a common urban fate: prison or untimely death.

"It sounds crazy, but I wanted to try to make a difference out here," said Dean. "Maybe one or two of us that grew up together are not incarcerated."

Dean was raised in an integrated neighborhood in West Baltimore, the only child of deeply religious parents. "My parents, they kept pushing. `Do this. Stay off the corner. You gotta be home at this time of night,'" he said.

His mother, Shirley, is a data processor at the Division of Correction. Sometimes, Dean visited her office after classes at Edmondson-West Side High School. He saw enough to know that he didn't want to end up inside.

His image of the police was "Officer Friendly," Dean said.

After high school, Dean spent a couple of years in the military, at bases in Texas and Alabama. When he returned home, he entered the police academy, hoping for the same discipline and camaraderie he had found in the service, he said.

He found it. After graduation, the city housing authority gave him a job. His parents worried that he would get hurt but never told him so, said his father, Kenneth. "We told him to be a policeman is a noble profession," he said.

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