Senator cautions police in civil disobedience cases

War protesters complain of treatment after arrests

March 25, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

In response to concerns about how eight war protesters were treated after they were arrested this month in Towson, Maryland Sen. James Brochin wrote a letter to Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan asking officers to be more sensitive to acts of civil disobedience.

Eight war protesters were arrested March 1 at Towson Town Center and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order. After their arrest, they said they spent 14 hours shackled in a Baltimore County police lockup without food, access to a phone or to a judge.

At one point, protesters said, a police officer in the Towson Precinct yelled, "USA! USA!" on the intercom and then made the sounds of bombs exploding.

"While I understand that these individuals have been accused of breaking the laws regarding disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order, I find their alleged treatment, if accurately reported, to be totally disproportionate to the offenses for which they are charged," Brochin wrote in the March 21 letter to Sheridan.

"Whether one believes in the war effort or not, I believe it is imperative that the Baltimore County Police Department do everything it can to be sensitive to allowing the war protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights," Brochin also wrote.

Baltimore County police officials said last week that the department's Internal Affairs Division was investigating the conditions at the lockup, including the behavior of the officer who allegedly made the bomb sounds. However, police said it was not unusual for it take 14 hours to process eight people arrested on a Saturday night in Towson.

"The county police are committed to protecting citizens' constitutional rights," Bill Toohey, a police spokesman, said yesterday. "In fact, a march of 180 people [against the war] was protected by the police last Thursday."

Toohey said the chief had received Brochin's letter and would provide whatever information about the results of the internal investigation that he can "under state law and keeping with county policy."

"I'm looking forward to seeing the results," Brochin said in an interview yesterday. "This isn't Communist China. ... There needs to be a distinction between civil disobedience and violent crime."

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