A Baltimore police officer was exonerated yesterday of using excessive force in a violent struggle nearly two years ago on McElderry Street that had racial overtones.
After four days of testimony from nearly two-dozen witnesses, a Police Department trial board took just an hour to find Officer Nicholas J. Tomlin innocent of any wrongdoing in the May 1990 incident near Oldtown Mall.
Officer Tomlin, 24, who is white, was accused of using excessive force in the arrest of Robert Washington, 23, who is black.
While on patrol at twilight, Officer Tomlin had spotted a gathering of young people that looked suspicious to him. It was Mr. Washington and several members of a softball team he coached. The young people had just finished practicing and were talking on the sidewalk in the 500 block of McElderry Street.
Officer Tomlin ordered them to stop loitering, and some of the young people resented the order. Words were exchanged between Mr. Washington, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, and Officer Tomlin, who is a foot taller and much heavier.
They struggled, and Mr. Washington was pushed against a chain link fence, punched, arrested on charges of assaulting an officer, patched up in a hospital emergency room and then jailed. In filing a complaint of excessive force, Mr. Washington claimed he was the victim of an unprovoked attack. But Officer Tomlin insisted all along that Mr. Washington started the fight, resisted arrest and had to be pinned against the metal fence and punched into submission.
Yesterday, the trial board also cleared Officer Tomlin of using profanity, making false statements and misconduct.
Officer Tomlin is now assigned to the Northeastern District. He is the son of Col. Leon Tomlin, chief of the property division for the city Police Department.
The verdict of the three-member trial board was unanimous. The panel was headed by Maj. Frank Russo, commander of the Central District. The other members were Lt. Leonard J. O'Connor, of Fiscal Affairs, and Officer Allen L. Ringgold Sr., of Community Services.
Following the struggle on McElderry Street, Mr. Washington, who sustained eye and mouth injuries, was charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and failing to obey a lawful request. He was acquitted of all charges in Baltimore Circuit Court and later filed an $11.8 million civil suit against Officer Tomlin, the city and the Police Department.
The trial board's decision hinged on inconsistencies in the testimony of Mr. Washington and eight other prosecution witnesses, all of them relatives or teen-age friends of Mr. Washington.
"It was a matter of not knowing who to believe," Major Russo said in announcing the verdict. Afterward he said, "Both sides pretty much tore each other's arguments down. The board could never come to grips with what the truth was. There was not enough in our minds to make one side more credible than the other.
"If both sides are equally credible, the tie goes to [the defendant]."
In a summation, Gary C. May, the Police Department attorney who prosecuted Officer Tomlin, asked the board to ignore the inconsistencies "that have feathered this case throughout. We expect inconsistencies, especially from civilians.
"It is difficult for police officers to judge other police officers. It may be the most distasteful thing for a police officer to do. But we're here to protect citizens, not officers when misconduct is committed."
Officer Tomlin's defense lawyer was Herb Weiner, counsel for Baltimore City Lodge No. 3 Fraternal Order of Police. Weiner noted that the prosecution could find no independent witnesses, only close friends and relatives of Mr. Washington.
Of the twilight gathering on the sidewalk, Mr. Weiner said, "Maybe they were good kids, but an officer doesn't know that when he pulls up.
"Some of the most innocuous-looking things end up sending officers to Shock Trauma."
Mr. Weiner directed his final words at the trial board: "Ask yourselves, dig deep down inside yourselves and ask if any of you would want to have your career tarnished, based on this evidence, or non-evidence."