Man sees race, indifference in experience with Baltimore police

Michael Hanchard questions decision not to investigate street incident from 2011

  • Hopkins professor Michael Hanchard and his wife, Zita Nunes pictured at the intersection at Baltimore and Gay St. where their car was surrounded by youths on bicycles.
Hopkins professor Michael Hanchard and his wife, Zita Nunes… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
April 13, 2013|Dan Rodricks

I don't know how to answer Michael Hanchard's questions, but I understand why he asks them: "If we were a middle-aged white couple, rather than a black couple, and if the group of people who surrounded us were black or Latino, rather than white, would the attackers have been treated with impunity?

"Would police officers have told a middle-aged white couple there was no way to determine whether they had been … assaulted?"

Before you go thinking that Michael Hanchard is a black man who plays the race card first and asks questions later, consider that the 53-year-old professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University waited a year to speak about this. He asked a lot of other questions — of police commanders and prosecutors, among others — before he got to the thorny ones about race and indifference.

This story goes back to 2 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2011. Hanchard and his wife, Zita Nunes, an English professor at the University of Maryland, were in their Volvo in downtown Baltimore, headed home to Roland Park after a pre-New Year's Eve party in Washington.

In an interview, and in court records and letters to the Baltimore police commissioner and state's attorney, Hanchard said he and his wife were harassed by a group of young adults on bicycles as they headed for a ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway. Hanchard says about 10 bicyclists surrounded his car and impeded his drive along North Gay Street. One of the bikers sat on his car at a stoplight.

When another repeatedly rammed the passenger side of the Volvo with the basket attached to his bike, Hanchard got out of the car and tried to push the rider away. He says the rider swung at him and missed; Hanchard swung back and landed a punch to the rider's face. Another person, Hanchard says, smashed the Volvo's windshield with a bicycle lock.

Hanchard and his wife both placed calls to 911. When the police arrived, several of the bicyclists were at the scene, including the one Hanchard had punched. Police conducted interviews, then decided not to file any charges.

Hanchard was shocked. He and his wife had called 911 three times. They believed they were the victims of a coordinated assault.

"It's your word against theirs," Hanchard heard one of the officers say.

"Police directed both parties to the court commissioner to seek charges, since the officer felt he had insufficient evidence to file a complaint," said Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Baltimore police.

Hanchard did as instructed, securing a charge of malicious destruction of property against a 25-year-old Charles Village man, who later filed charges of his own, accusing Hanchard of assault.

In his court filings, and in a conversation with me, the Charles Village man, Henry Hinz, said he had been one of 20 to 30 bicyclists out for a ride when Hanchard's car struck him, sending him off his bike on Gay Street.

"After I got back on my bike and attempted to ride away," Hinz stated in court papers, "[Hanchard] got out of his car, chased me down and pulled me off my bicycle. When I attempted to stand, Michael Hanchard struck me in the face. Michael Hanchard is not the victim in this incident. He acted violently and aggressively."

Hanchard denies striking Hinz with his car.

When the cases got to court, Hinz was acquitted; the charge against Hanchard was dismissed because the prosecution was not ready to proceed on the trial date.

Hanchard was upset that the state's attorney's office pressed the assault charge against him, forcing the Hopkins professor to hire an attorney and defend himself in court.

But his main beef goes back to the morning of Dec. 31, 2011, and the white police officer who did not believe that Hanchard and his wife had been harassed and attacked by a group of young white adults on bicycles.

Would the police have investigated the incident as a crime had Hanchard been white and the bicyclists black?

After thinking about that for a year — and recalling the ugly political uproar last spring about "roving mobs of black youths" in downtown Baltimore — Hanchard suspects the answer to that is yes. The city's struggles with crime and lawlessness, he says, are still "compounded by the reality of a racial divide."

He takes something else away from his experience: profound concern about a "culture of indifference."

Back to the incident on Gay Street: I can see how busy cops might have viewed what happened there as a he said/he said dispute in the middle of the night, better left to a judge to settle in the light of day. But what police officers might consider sound, fair and quick decision-making in what they view as a minor incident can look like infuriating indifference to the taxpaying citizen, black or white, who calls for help.

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