Family protests police shooting

Lawsuit planned in man's death

August 06, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Relatives of a Brooklyn man who was fatally shot by a Baltimore police officer as he fled a suspected drug deal contended yesterday that police used excessive force. They said they planned to file a civil lawsuit in the death of 39-year-old Ernest Oliver, who apparently was unarmed.

Among the two dozen gathered in front of Southern District police headquarters yesterday afternoon was Oliver's sister, who said her brother was a "good man" who was shot in the back. "If he's running, he's of no harm to you," said Michele Oliver, 44. "My brother had a few problems just like anybody else, but he didn't have to die."

Police said Officer David Diener fired several shots, believing his life was in danger after he saw Oliver reach for his pockets.

Diener was one of four plainclothes officers patrolling for people with outstanding warrants in Cherry Hill shortly after 8 p.m. Friday when they encountered what they believed to be a drug transaction, said Nicole Monroe, a police spokeswoman. Oliver fled and was running down a dirt path into an alley in the 600 block of Roundview Road when Diener, believing Oliver was armed, shot him multiple times, Monroe said.

Oliver was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead. Narcotics were found on him but no weapon, police said.

Monroe initially said Oliver, of the 900 block of Victory Ave., had been shot in the chest but later said it was possible that the injury was an exit wound. Family members said yesterday that doctors told them Oliver had been shot three times in the back, with bullets piercing his lungs, heart and stomach.

A. Dwight Pettit, Oliver's attorney for a 2003 drug distribution charge, said the family would seek a wrongful death suit. Pettit has handled several high-profile police brutality cases - including a $105 million judgment in 2004 - and said litigation is the only way to send a message to the department.

Diener was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation and had yet to give a statement, Monroe said. He was based in the Southern District and has been on the force since 2003.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm would not comment until the investigation had been completed, Monroe said. But she said police-involved shootings are rare and would be taken seriously by the department.

"Throughout the course of the year, officers make thousands upon thousands of arrests, usually without incident," she said. "The detectives are piecing things together."

Mayor Martin O'Malley could not be reached for comment yesterday.

As relatives gathered to protest the shooting, officers continued to comb a long alley near where Oliver was shot, using a police dog to search for a weapon or other evidence. Neighbors said officers had used a weed-whacker to trim back brush and long grass.

Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union, said officers use force as a last resort.

"When officers go out on the streets, it's very dangerous," Blair said yesterday. "The last thing any officer ever wants to do is use deadly force. When they have to, it's usually when they're in fear of their lives and fellow officers they're with."

Family members disputed that Oliver was engaged in drug activity, saying he was hanging out with friends before heading to work. He had been arrested 11 times on drug charges and charges of robbery, possession of a deadly weapon and battery and was serving double probation until 2008.

Roxanne Smith, Oliver's fiancee of nine years, said he called her just minutes before the incident, asking her to bring him a pair of shoes and a shirt so he could go to work. He had a job cleaning cars, family members said.

Smith, 40, said Oliver had four children, one of whom died as an infant, and helped raise her two children. They were planning to wed next year.

"Everybody has a second chance," Smith said. "He was doing everything he was supposed to."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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