By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
8:32 PM EST, February 1, 2012
No one was going to believe his account, he thought. Ricky Thomas — who'd done prison time for dealing drugs and resisting arrest — said he was sucker-punched in the face by a Baltimore police officer and stomped. Now he was locked up and facing charges of assaulting police.
But there was video of the incident. And unknown to him, investigators with the Police Department's internal affairs unit and the city prosecutor's office were pursuing the case.
Last month, Officer Donyell Briggs was given probation before judgment by a city judge on charges of second-degree assault and misconduct in office. Though Thomas was dissatisfied with the punishment — probation before judgment is not considered a conviction — he's heartened that prosecutors took the case seriously.
"Stuff like that just don't happen to me," Thomas said in an interview at the offices of his attorney, Christie Needleman. "It made me smile. Somebody believed me."
Briggs remains on the force and is suspended pending an internal disciplinary process, and his attorney, Shaun Owens, maintains that the use of force was appropriate. He said the video captures only one point of view.
Briggs "had reason to believe that this individual was dangerous," Owens said. "We continue to believe that this was a legitimate use of force and that all of the facts and circumstances supported that."
Thomas, 38, who lives in North Baltimore and works as a clerk at a music store, said he was driving to a friend's house on Feb. 4, 2010, when he was pulled over in the 2700 block of Baker St., near Coppin State University, for failing to stop at a stop sign. He said Briggs asked him to get out of the car, told him to get on his knees and was being rough with him. He was nervous — recalling a case of police shooting an unarmed man — and didn't trust Briggs. He took off running.
Briggs would later write in charging documents that Thomas' vehicle smelled of marijuana, and that Thomas pushed him before fleeing.
The video, a city surveillance camera being operated by an officer at the Citiwatch center, picks up here. It shows Thomas jogging around a corner, then hiding behind a fence. Another officer, Detective William Finein, shines a flashlight on Thomas, who stands up and appears to be complying.
Needleman said that portion of the video demonstrated that Thomas felt more comfortable once the additional officers arrived and that he was obeying the second officer's orders.
Briggs then enters the frame and strikes Thomas in the face, and appears to be stomping Thomas as he falls to the ground. The camera, being operated by police officials, zooms out after the men move out of view. A third officer appears to be watching from a short distance.
Briggs was taken to Mercy Medical Center for cuts to his right hand and treated for dizziness and shortness of breath. Thomas spent a week in jail and eventually posted $150,000 bond. All charges against him were dropped once prosecutors began investigating the assault.
"I went through all this because of what he wrote on this paper," Thomas said, referring to the statement of charges, "and that's not even what happened."
Owens said Briggs has a good record with the department.
According to police policy, the internal disciplinary process can't begin until all criminal components of the case are resolved.
"When allegations were brought forward, they were investigated swiftly. The result of the state's attorney's [case] bore that out," said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III held a news conference last week to discuss new hires intended to improve internal affairs and training.
"We know we have in some areas, in some communities, and with some officers, an estranged, broken relationship," Bealefeld told reporters, saying the new officials would help put a public face on police integrity. He was speaking in general terms about the department and was not addressing the Thomas case.
In Briggs' report charging Thomas with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, he wrote that Thomas was "thrashing around and tried to break free" from Finein, and said he used the police department's arrest-and-control tactics to bring Thomas under control.
Before charges were brought against Briggs in February 2011, State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein sat in on an interview session with Finein, who had filed a use-of-force report that stated that Thomas was resisting him.
At Briggs' trial, prosecutors called as a witness a Virginia-based martial-arts expert, Lewis Hicks, who since 2008 has been paid $1.8 million to teach officers how to bring suspects under control without using excessive force. Documents showed Briggs had been through that training twice, and Hicks testified that Briggs didn't apply the techniques correctly.
Owens, Briggs' attorney, said in an interview that while Thomas may have appeared to be under control, Thomas had assaulted Briggs before the scene captured in the video, and Briggs could not assume that Thomas no longer posed a threat.
He also said Briggs used less force than the other options available to him, such as using a baton.
"The video portrays this case in the light the state wanted it to be portrayed," Owens said. "Unfortunately, there is no video capturing the entire incident. If there had been, we think this case would've turned out differently."
Thomas was sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug distribution charges in 2003, and got eight years for drug distribution and resisting arrest in 1997.
Needleman, Thomas' attorney, said she's not sure the case would have moved forward without the video. "That's the interesting question. Is there a case here if there's no video? My instincts tell me no. It's a legitimate position to a degree, in terms of putting their resources to good use."
Briggs was ordered to complete 200 hours of community service as part of his year of supervised probation, according to Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the city prosecutor's office. If he successfully completes the probation, he won't have a conviction on his record.
Thomas said he believes a regular citizen would have received a harsher penalty. But he praised prosecutors, particularly Janice Bledsoe, Bernstein's newly appointed prosecutor in charge of police misconduct. "She went hard," he said.
Needleman says Thomas plans to pursue a civil lawsuit against the Police Department.
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