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Bealefeld: Downtown beating not a hate crime

ShootingsCyber CrimeTrayvon MartinAmerican Civil Liberties UnionNazi Party

Baltimore's top cop warned Tuesday against "race-baiting" amid rising tensions across the nation, citing the Trayvon Martin case and cautioning that a video generating outrage on the Internet of a tourist being beaten and stripped in downtown Baltimore does not appear to depict a hate crime.

Police CommissionerFrederick H. Bealefeld III, appearing on WBAL's "The C4 Show," said the attack on a 31-year-old white man from Arlington, Va., appears to be nothing beyond "drunken opportunistic criminality." The comment came in response to a caller who said that if the victim had been black and the assailants white, civil rights leaders would be descending on Baltimore and the attackers would be charged with a hate crime.

Bealefeld, the white police commissioner in majority-black Baltimore, warned against "fear-mongering."

"There's no doubt it's a crime," he said. "We need to vigorously hold criminals accountable, and we have to be careful not to be pulled into this race-baiting.

"I want to caution people, because I think there will be ample national noise as we progress through the Trayvon Martin and the [Oklahoma shooting] cases," Bealefeld said. "As these things get going, I will urge caution of Baltimoreans to distinguish between criminality and racially motivated crime."

Protests continue over the killing of Martin, an unarmed teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. A prosecutor said this week that the case would not go before a grand jury. The mayor has called his town a "kindling box," with the New Black Panther Party offering a bounty for the shooter's capture and reports of neo-Nazis on patrol. In Oklahoma, several people were killed in a shooting rampage that authorities say might have been race-based retribution.

Hate-crime charges are relatively rare and used as a sentencing enhancement for underlying crimes, and local law enforcement officials say they require evidence that race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disability was the motivation in the attack.

Recent high-profile hate-crime cases include the beating of a transgender woman at a Rosedale McDonald's and an attack on an elderly black fisherman in South Baltimore by a white man with a Hitler tattoo who told the victim the beating "wouldn't have happened if he was a white man." The assailant in the McDonald's attack was sentenced to five years in prison; the white supremacist received 31 years.

The Baltimore beating video went viral after first being uploaded to social media and popular shock video websites. It showed a seemingly disoriented white man standing with a group of young black people. As a woman danced against the victim, someone took an item from his pocket. When he moved to recover the item, he was punched in the face and fell to the pavement. The victim was then stripped of his clothing by laughing assailants.

Police said initially that they did not have a report on the incident. Then, with the video gaining wide attention, police were able to connect the incident to a report taken March 19 from a man who said he was assaulted and robbed of a watch, car keys and cellphone but could not remember where the attack occurred.

Outraged viewers of the video tracked social media to pinpoint an apparent suspect, who had discussed the incident on his Twitter account before shutting it down. A call to the man's phone indicated his voicemail might have been hacked, with a message from someone claiming to be the suspect and boasting of the attack.

No charges have been filed against the man — identified in social media accounts as a 20-year-old from Rosedale — but Bealefeld said the investigation is continuing.

"I'm confident [detectives] are following procedures, dotting i's, crossing t's, and working with the state's attorney's office to develop a good, solid prosecutable case and the evidence we need," Bealefeld said.

Of the efforts by citizens to track down the suspect, Bealefeld said in the radio interview: "I thought they were very creative in some of the things they did, but there's a difference between what private citizens do and what detectives do in the legal construct of developing a case."

Bealefeld also addressed recent reports that officers had gone into a school to handcuff and arrest a group of 8- and 9-year-olds who were charged with assaulting classmates off school property. The American Civil Liberties Union said police had overstepped their bounds, and relatives of the juveniles said the arrests were mishandled.

Bealefeld said the arrests "have raised a number of questions inside the Police Department that we're working through. I hope people have confidence in us that if we made mistakes, we're going to address that and work to avoid it."

But he said debate over the arrests distracted from the crimes committed and problems in the Morrell Park community. The students were accused of holding a youth's head underwater and another's against train tracks during a fight. Television reports said the children referred to themselves as "The Hit Squad."

"Sure, we could've done it better. But at the end of the day, we can't lose sight of why we were there to start with. ... We twist away from what's happening with bullying, what's going on in that neighborhood," Bealefeld said. "What's going on in that neighborhood that these violent assaults are happening? They didn't wake up one day and say, 'I'm putting my friend's head underwater.'"

jfenton@baltsun.com

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