FBI to probe death of man in custody

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The FBI and state prosecutors said yesterday that they will investigate claims that a squad of police officers pummeled a man in West Baltimore last weekend shortly before he was pronounced dead in the back of a police van.

With tempers flaring in the North Fulton Street area, Baltimore police commanders also removed five officers from the streets yesterday, assigning them to desk posts while police investigators examine the claims.

Police commanders also released the names of the officers yesterday but said they don't know what took place on a sidewalk between the marble steps of two rowhouses in the Sandtown-Winchester section of the city. The officers have refused to provide homicide detectives with their versions of what happened.

This much is not in dispute:

About 11:30 on July 2, Jesse Chapman, 30, followed his girlfriend to the Western District police station. He fought with her in the lobby and fled. A squad of officers, the majority of them white, chased him. They caught up with Mr. Chapman, who is black, placed him in a police van and drove him back to the station, where he was pronounced dead at 11:57 p.m.

After several days of protests at the Western District station house, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier held a secret, closed-door meeting last night with community leaders. Afterward, he said he hoped that some of his efforts, such as removing the officers from their beats, would help calm the community.

"We have community unrest," he said. "It was a move to defuse the instant situation."

Among yesterday's developments:

* The FBI announced that it will investigate claims that Mr. Chapman was severely beaten and try to determine whether the officers violated his civil rights.

* The city state's attorney's office also launched an investigation, interviewing witnesses who say the police officers pummeled Mr. Chapman. The investigation could result in a grand jury probe.

* Mr. Frazier removed five officers from their beats, citing increasing pressure from angry community leaders.

* Results of a preliminary autopsy report contradict claims that Mr.Chapman was severely beaten, causing his death. The autopsy found minor scratches and bruises, but no evidence of a serious or prolonged beating.

* Several witnesses said in interviews with The Sun that the officers beat Mr. Chapman while he was lying on the sidewalk and then tossed his lifeless body into the police van.

The case caught the attention of federal prosecutors earlier this week.

Federal prosecutors contacted the FBI because of the incident involved the death of a suspect in police custody. FBI supervisors declined yesterday to disclose any details of their investigation.

Civil rights probe

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said her office independently contacted the FBI. She said the probe is being handled as a civil rights investigation.

The FBI will report its findings to her and the U.S. Justice Department, and will decide whether there are grounds for a civil criminal prosecution, she said.

State prosecutors said yesterday that they are also interested in the case. Prosecutors plan to interview witnesses and review evidence before deciding whether to pursue criminal charges. If so, the case would be presented to a grand jury, State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said.

"In any death of a police officer or a civilian that raises questions, we need to make a preliminary assessment to determine whether or not there's probable cause that a crime occurred," he said.

Mr. Simms said the FBI investigation would not interfere with his office's probe.

The incident set off several days of protests at the police station on Mount Street. With tempers rising and a hot weekend ahead, Mr. Frazier said he decided to heed the calls to remove the officers from their neighborhood patrols.

Officers given desk jobs

The commissioner announced yesterday that the five officers would be removed from their beats and assigned to the desk jobs.

The officers are Stanley Brandford, 33, a three-year veteran; PTC Diane Koonce, 39, a two-year veteran; Sean Ruane, 22, a one-year veteran; Samuel Shipley, 35, a three-year veteran; and Sean White, 25, a seven-year veteran. Officers Ruane, Shipley and White are white; Officers Brandford and Koonce are black.

The move followed an unusual episode Thursday night. Officer White chased a gun-carrying suspect into a rowhouse on 1305 FultonAve., where Mr. Chapman lived, police said. It was a coincidence, but it could have been embarrassing for the police if Officer White had fired his weapon while being under investigation in the Chapman incident.

"Had the officer resorted to force, the commissioner feels that it could have resulted in an explosive situation," police spokesman Sam Ringgold said yesterday.

None of the officers has agreed to provide the department with statements.

'Paranoid officers'

"You got a lot of paranoid police officers out there at this point," said Lt. Leander S. Nevin, head of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "They're afraid that no matter what they do, they're going to be put through an ordeal."

Mr. Frazier said the officers' decision not to provide statements is prolonging the investigation.

"It's a frustrating process for me because it slows down everything," he said.

Also slowing the investigation is the completion of the autopsy report.

A preliminary autopsy report indicates that there were minor scratches and abrasions on Mr. Chapman's face and hands consistent with a brief struggle, but no evidence of bruises, broken bones or internal injuries that would indicate a serious or prolonged beating. There was also no evidence that Mr. Chapman was strangled or suffocated, investigators say.

Cocaine use found

The autopsy also found that Mr. Chapman was using cocaine at the time of his death and suffered from chronic bronchial problems -- confirming earlier accounts from his girlfriend that he was a drug user and asthmatic -- two conditions that could have combined to produce a heart attack or other fatal complication, investigators said.

Nevertheless, several people who live in the 1100 block of N. Fulton Ave. said they watched officers pummel Mr. Chapman as he lay on a sidewalk in the West Baltimore neighborhood.

In interviews with The Sun, the witnesses gave conflicting accounts about what they saw.

Some said Mr. Chapman was standing when an officer punched him; others said he was on the ground. Some said Mr. Chapman was handcuffed; others said he wasn't. Some said he was beaten for two or three minutes; others said the episode lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

The witnesses agreed on one thing: They saw Mr. Chapman running north along North Fulton Avenue, pursued by three or four officers, and a police cruiser jumped the curb and pulled on the sidewalk, blocking Mr. Chapman's path. At that point, the stories begin to differ.

James Breakfield said he was several feet from the scene. He declined to discuss what he saw but released a statement in which he said three officers "were repeatedly striking the black man to the head, face and upper body area with a hard object."

Joseph Whynder, 76, said he was about five feet from the scene. "They put handcuffs on him and then started beating him," he said.

LaKeshia Jones, 15, said she was standing across the street. She said the officers handcuffed Mr. Chapman and ordered to him to roll over. She said an officer emerged from a police cruiser and punched Mr.Chapman and other officers struck Mr. Chapman with their fists. "I saw them strike him in the head," he said.

Curtis Faulcon, 36, said he was standing across the street. He said one officer punched Mr. Chapman in the face and he fell to the ground. At that point, he said, the officers handcuffed Mr. Chapman and started to hit him on the head and chest with their fists.

LaKiya Hamilton, 16, said she was standing across the street. She said she saw Mr. Chapman lying on the ground in handcuffs. She said she didn't see any of the officers strike a blow but noticed one of the officers shaking his hand as if he had just hit something.

Jeannie Lynch, 23, said she was across the street. She said one officer punched Mr. Chapman in the face and started to shake his hand. She said blood splattered on his white shirt. Other officers joined in, she said, striking Mr. Chapman with their nightsticks. She said the officers then handcuffed Mr. Chapman.

Cindy Prout, 14, said she was looking out her first-floor window, just above the sidewalk where the officers caught up to Mr. Chapman. She said the officers ordered Mr. Chapman to the ground and then threw him to the sidewalk. "I ran upstairs," she said. "I had my baby brother with me. I didn't know if they were going to start shooting."

By the time she came downstairs, about 15 minutes later, she said, the officers had placed Mr. Chapman in the van.

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