One man's ordeal is ending, another's is beginning


THE JURY returned and Robert L. Washington stood in the courtroom, awaiting his fate.

Accused of assaulting a city patrolman and resisting arrest, Washington prepared for the worst.

He peered at the jurors' solemn faces. They had deliberated for only an hour following three days of testimony in which the defendant and the officer gave very different versions of a struggle in the 500 block of McElderry St. last May.

To Washington, it seemed to take forever for the jury foreman to say . . . "Not guilty."

With those words, the defendant buried his head in his hands. Washington's trial was over.

The ordeal of Officer Nicholas J. Tomlin had just begun.

By rejecting Tomlin's version, the jury was saying in effect that the patrolman may have stepped over the line between aggressive law-enforcement and using excessive force.

Since the incident on McElderry Street, Tomlin has been:

* Removed from street patrol in Southeastern District and given a desk job there.

* Transferred at his request to another district.

* Investigated by the police Internal Investigation Division, which recently upheld Washington's allegation that Tomlin used excessive force.

* Named as a co-defendant in an $11.85 million civil suit leveled by Washington this month against the city and police department.

Tomlin now walks a beat in the Northeastern District, where he transferred in March.

As a neighborhood services officer, he is part of an innovative program providing communities with regular foot patrolmen. Tomlin also works the Memorial Stadium area during Oriole games.

"He has done an excellent job here, and has made some real good arrests," says Lt. John Papier of the Northeastern District. Papier says Tomlin made two drug arrests in April, for cocaine and marijuana possession.

Papier calls Tomlin "a real personable guy, very likable, with the poise and assertiveness of a football player.

"He volunteered for this job," says Papier. "At Southeastern, they had him inside as a turnkey. He wanted to get outside in the fresh air."

Tomlin, 23, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 300 pounds, played varsity football as a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he starred for the undefeated Engineers in 1984. Tomlin is remembered as a "team player" by his high school coaches and was named to The Evening Sun's All-Metropolitan first team as an offensive tackle in his senior year. He graduated in 1985 and attended Rutgers University before joining the city police force in 1988.

According to the police Legal Affairs Division, Tomlin this month was served with three departmental charges stemming from the incident on McElderry Street near Oldtown Mall: failing to refrain from the use of unnecessary force, discourtesy to members of the public, and "general misconduct reflecting discredit on the department by his actions that night."


The charges anger some of Tomlin's fellow officers.

"We had sent him out there to do what he was doing, to move people along," says another officer in the Southeastern District. "We had complaints from people about loitering in the Oldtown Mall area."

The officer, who requested anonymity, says Tomlin "was very interested in his job and wasn't one to just put in his time. He was busy doing things we wanted him to do."

Tomlin was on routine patrol at twilight last May 12 when he spotted Washington with a group of teen-agers on McElderry Street. Tomlin told everyone to move along and stop loitering.

The young people were members of a softball team coached by Washington, who muttered something the officer couldn't hear. A confrontation ensued and Washington was hit, arrested and jailed. Washington, 22, who is 5-foot-7, says the attack was unprovoked and peppered with racial remarks. Tomlin denies making the remarks and says he used only enough force to subdue the smaller man.

Two days after the incident, Washington filed an excessive-force complaint against Tomlin, which triggered the investigation by the police Internal Investigation Division. Washington, a part-time house painter, says the acquittal in his own criminal trial convinced him to file the multimillion-dollar civil suit.

Last year, the police department completed investigations in 44 cases involving allegations of excessive force. None of the cases resulted in disciplinary action against an officer.


The process by which the police police themselves is both lengthy and intricate, and the burden of proof is on the complainant.

The evaluation of an excessive-force complaint can take more than a year. For example, the investigation of Tomlin's case began in May 1990. The complaint was upheld recently by the Internal Investigation Division, and there are several steps still to go. Typically during these lengthy inquiries, officers remain on the job.

Most complaints against officers are filed in police stations, a procedure which can be intimidating for the complainant. Citizens also may lodge complaints through the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, Legal Aid Bureau, state's attorney or the NAACP.

All complaints are then scrutinized by the Internal Investigation Division, whose detectives canvass the scene of an incident searching for impartial witnesses. If there are no witnesses to an alleged beating, and no serious injuries, the division usually recommends that a case be dropped.

Roughly two of every 100 complaints are upheld by the division.

The next step in the process is the Complaint Evaluation Board, which reviews the division's recommendations. The board consists of one police member and six civilians, most of whom are lawyers. In 99 cases out of 100, the board confirms the recommendations of the Internal Investigation Division.

Says one lawyer on the board, "Two-thirds of the brutality allegations are ridiculous. There are some mean-spirited people making complaints when the officer is just doing his job. But there are other times when everyone [on the board] has a sense that something bad happened. We just don't have enough evidence from the little black books that IID gives us."


Pending its review by the board, Tomlin's case is expected to be heard later this summer by the Administrative Trial Board, a panel of three police officers who would finally determine his guilt or innocence.

If found guilty and facing punishment, Tomlin would be allowed to introduce any citations or character witnesses as mitigating factors. His punishment could be anything from a letter of reprimand to dismissal from the force -- which is almost unheard of in excessive-force cases. The trial board forwards its recommendation to the police commissioner, who usually confirms it.

Tomlin could also be offered punishment in lieu of appearing before the trial board.

Tomlin's father is Col. Leon Tomlin, chief of the property division for the city police department. A brother, Mark Tomlin, is a city homicide detective.

Those who prosecute excessive-force cases before the trial board say that convictions are difficult to obtain. "We're out to win every case, but usually we convict on a lesser charge," says Sgt. Michael Fry, administrative counsel for the police department. "It's tough to convince three police officers that excessive force was used. They remember similar situations that they themselves were involved in [as patrolmen]."

By the time a case reaches the trial board, the complainant's wounds usually have healed. "We're not parading guys in here with broken arms," says Sgt. Rick Puller of the Legal Affairs Division. "Most excessive-force cases are, like, right on the edge, not brutal situations, but where the [officer] took one step over the line."


Tomlin's case seems to follow that pattern, says Puller. "There was obvious bodily harm to [Washington]. He suffered injury to his right eye socket, a lacerated lip and contusions to the rib area. These injuries may not be entirely out of sync with a difficult arrest, if [Washington] was combative.

"The position of Officer Tomlin is that this person wanted to fight and struck him in the groin. If so, the person's injuries are entirely consistent. The question is whether force was justified. We have about eight witnesses who say it wasn't. At this juncture, we have every intention of proceeding with this case, barring someone coming in and saying, 'I lied.' "

Tomlin isn't the only one whose life has been altered by that 30-minute struggle on McElderry Street. Washington's injuries have healed, though he says bright lights affect his eyesight, and he sometimes complains of a swollen jaw. The bad dreams, the ones in which he is locked up, have stopped. But on his desk are medical bills totaling $2,000 from Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he went for treatment after being released on bail. Earlier, on the night of his arrest, he was taken by police to Church Hospital and treated.


Aside from the eye and jaw problems, Washington says he's "back to normal -- unless I see a police car. Then I get nervous and scared. Sometimes at night if I'm by myself, and see the police, I almost get the urge to run. My mind and legs say run, but I can't."

Washington and his family say that officers no longer stop along McElderry Street to play baseball with neighborhood kids. When a police car passes, siren wailing, some parents run outside to gather up their children. "My mother makes me come in the house, and I'm 22. That's how worried she is," says Washington.

"I want to know everywhere Bobby goes," says Washington's mother, Patricia Tolliver. "I know I get on his nerves. But then I think of all those nights with Bobby screaming in his sleep, 'Help me! Leave me alone!' And all I could do was lie there in bed and cry."

"For a long time, I lost respect for the police, but it's changing. I'm not saying I don't harbor any ill feelings. But when my 10-year-old says she hates the police, I tell her she can't hate them all for the actions of a few.

"You have to trust the police."

Says Washington, "You can't judge all the police by one man. Even now, if [Tomlin] could give me a good reason for what he did, I could accept it. But I don't see any reason at all."

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