Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsMarylandBaltimore City

Federal claims in civil suit against police and city can go forward, judge rules

Justice SystemDrunk DrivingHomicideFrederick H. Bealefeld, IIIGahiji A. Tshamba

The Baltimore City government and Police Department, along with their top officials, can be sued under federal law for allegedly failing to control Officer Gahiji Tshamba, who was convicted of manslaughter last month in state court after repeated instances of prior professional misconduct, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled.

The family of victim Tyrone Brown, who was shot by Tshamba a dozen times outside a Baltimore nightclub last year, filed a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against the officer, the state, the city, the mayor, the Police Department and its commissioner in March.

"Plaintiffs have asserted sufficient claims to establish a 'deliberate indifference' on the part of" the Baltimore Police Department and potential "municipal liability," Judge Richard D. Bennett wrote in a 14-page opinion filed Monday.

All parties, except for Tshamba, had earlier filed motions to dismiss the case, which the judge ruled on Monday. He dismissed the state as a defendant, along with state-related counts against the city and police defendants. But he allowed two federal civil rights claims, alleging excessive force and Constitution violations, to go forward against the Baltimore agencies.

The decision renews questions about why the Police Department and its leaders kept Tshamba on the force — and continued to provide him with a gun — after earlier incidents showed that the officer had issues with alcohol and violence, along with a history of poor judgment and breaking the rules.

Tshamba, now 37, shot a suspect in the back in 1998, after mistakenly believing the man had opened fire. In 2001, he took a woman to Central Booking, where she was strip searched, after he said she failed to properly sign a traffic ticket. And in 2005, he was suspended for shooting a man in the foot while off duty and drunken driving.

"One instance in which an intoxicated police officer shoots a person is sufficient to raise serious concerns about the potential for similar force in the future," Bennett wrote. "Officers involved in multiple instances of police misconduct, especially misconduct involving excessive force allegations, should be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny and supervision."

Tshamba was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and a handgun violation last month in connection with Brown's death, which occurred after a night of drinking and a brief squabble between the two men involving a woman.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon found that Tshamba "drew his gun when it was not at all necessary," escalating an already tense situation and leading to Brown's death. The judge also found that Tshamba never identified himself as a police officer before opening fire and that he lied about the incident afterward to cover his misdeeds.

Attorneys for the city could not be reached Tuesday, and police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said he couldn't talk about the lawsuit. He added that the department takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, however.

"We investigate in the most efficacious manner possible, and, when there are instances of wrongdoing, we hold [officers] accountable," Guglielmi said. "That's how this police administration takes on issues of misconduct."

He pointed to the federal indictment Tuesday of Baltimore Officer Daniel Redd on gun and drug charges, along with the recent extortion charges filed against 17 city officers alleging they took kickbacks from an auto repair company — both the result of investigations initiated by the Police Department and Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who took office in 2007.

Bealefeld is named in the lawsuit.

A. Dwight Pettit, who represents Brown's family in the civil suit, called Bennett's ruling significant because it allows him to explore the Police Department's discipline policies in court — what they are and whether they're being followed.

"The federal counts are the main counts," he said, adding that he believes they could lead to policy changes that "better protect the citizens of Baltimore City."

Tshamba's personnel records, which show he's been disciplined at least three times for misconduct, were not part of his trial last month in Baltimore Circuit Court, though they could affect the sentencing.

Judge Hargadon is holding a hearing Wednesday to discuss with attorneys whether he'll consider the information.

Tshamba could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for August.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
    Comments
    Loading