Civil trial begins for three Baltimore officers accused of brutalizing father after traffic stop

Attorney asks if Baltimore police brutality case about 'big, bad wolf' or 'crying wolf'

In his opening remarks in the civil trial of three Baltimore police officers accused of assaulting city resident Abdul Salaam and traumatizing his young son during a 2013 traffic stop, Salaam's attorney Allan Rabineau told jurors that the evidence presented would lead them to a single conclusion.

"Simply stated," Rabineau said in a downtown courtroom Friday morning, "this is a case of police brutality — malicious, unprovoked police brutality."

An attorney for the officers, in his own remarks, painted a sharply different picture, suggesting Salaam's version of events was a fairytale conceived to veil the criminality of his own actions, cast officers as "the big, bad wolf" and, in the process, collect a financial settlement.

"I want you to look at the officers' actions to see if all this malice and police brutality and anger is there," attorney Chaz Ball said. "Is it really the big, bad wolf they're describing, or are they just crying wolf to try to get money?"

The verbal sparring kicked off a trial that has captured the attention of city activists, in part because two of the officers being sued — Officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz — were also involved in the arrest of Tyrone West in the same New Northwood neighborhood three weeks after arresting Salaam.

West, 44, died while in police custody, and his relatives — including sister Tawanda Jones, who sat in the courtroom Friday — have waged weekly protests outside City Hall ever since. The family alleges West was beaten to death, though the officers involved — Chapman, Bernardez-Ruiz and seven others — were all cleared of criminal wrongdoing and his autopsy showed no injuries from being struck that would have caused serious injury or death. The state medical examiner ruled West died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the summer heat and his struggle with police.

The family has filed a lawsuit alleging West's civil rights were violated, which is pending in federal court. Both families have said they believe West would still be alive if the police department had suspended Chapman and Bernardez-Ruiz pending a review of Salaam's allegations. They jointly announced their separate lawsuits against the officers in June 2014.

"Only through an act of God is Mr. Salaam still here," A. Dwight Pettit, an attorney for both families, said at the time. "The attack on him was so brutal that he could very easily have been departed just like Mr. West."

The third officer in Salaam's case, Officer Nathan Ulmer, was not involved in West's arrest. Salaam's young son, Amir, who was 3 years old and in the car at the time of Salaam's arrest, is also named as a plaintiff.

A police internal affairs investigation into the matter previously found their was insufficient evidence to support a complaint against the officers, and they are not being charged criminally.

In court Friday, Salaam, 37, sat dressed in a neat suit behind Rabineau, Pettit and attorney Latoya Francis-Williams. On the opposite side of the courtroom sat Chapman, Bernardez-Ruiz and Ulmer, also wearing suits.

Addressing the nine-member jury first, Rabineau said he would provide a basic outline of the events in question, but noted that "there will be conflict, quite a bit of conflict, about what people saw."

On July 1, 2013, he said, Salaam was enjoying "a joyful evening" with his son, taking him to Chik-fil-A and then to the grocery store before returning home to prepare for a trip to New Jersey for a family reunion. Upon turning into the alley behind his home, where he parks in his backyard, Rabineau said, Salaam noticed a police SUV behind him but "had no idea it was relevant to him in any way."

As he parked, he noticed three officers jumping out of their vehicle with guns in hand, yelling at him, Rabineau said. Salaam then put his hands out of the window with his wallet.

"What did they do?" Rabineau asked the jurors. "They yank him out of the car."

The officers then proceeded to drag Salaam across the ground, then pick him up and toss him back down, Rabineau said. "He's asking, 'What's this for?' He doesn't know. He has no idea."

Eventually, Salaam would be handcuffed and shackled — his son watching "traumatized" from the car, Rabineau said — and taken to the Northeast District station and then to the hospital, where pictures would be taken of injuries to his face, neck, shoulder and eyebrow.

Salaam was charged with not wearing a seat belt, talking on a cellphone while driving, trying to elude police and disturbing the peace, Rabineau said, though he contends he wasn't on the phone, was wearing a seat belt, and that any disturbance in the neighborhood was the fault of the officers.

In court in October 2013, prosecutors declined to pursue any of the charges against Salaam, Rabineau said.

Salaam is now alleging assault and battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, and the violation of his civil rights, Rabineau said, and will ask the jury for "substantial damages."

Ball, addressing the jury after Rabineau, asked the jury to consider the allegations carefully.

"Simply by saying something happened doesn't mean it happened," he said. Ball asked them to determine whether "this is a case about crime" or a case about "money or publicity or anything else."

Ball said the officers had driven past Salaam and seen him talking on his phone without a seat belt on. They turned around on the street and, with sirens on, sought to pull Salaam over. Salaam briefly stopped his vehicle, Ball said, but then started driving again before quickly pulling into the backyard of a home.

"He knows that's his backyard, behind his house, but the officers don't know that," Ball said.

When the officers get out to approach the vehicle, they notice Salaam reaching toward his center console, which triggers their training, Ball said.

"The officers in that moment are trained to look at the situation for potential danger," Ball said. Fearing Salaam may have a weapon in the console, Chapman moved quickly up to the vehicle and pulled Salaam out, Ball said.

The two began to tussle — "they sort of dosey doe," Ball said — before Chapman was able to get Salaam on the ground. Then, as Bernardez-Ruiz tried to handcuff Salaam, Salaam kicked Chapman in the face, Ball said, which led Chapman to put him in a leglace restraint before Salaam was finally taken into custody.

After the initial arrest, several neighbors on the street came out into the alley and began recording the scene with their cellphones. Ball told the jury they would see that video, and asked them to watch it carefully.

After Ball finished, one of those neighbors was called by Salaam's attorneys as the first witness.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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