The president of the union that represents Baltimore police officers today accused commissioner Thomas C. Frazier of caving in to politicians by supporting a federal civil-rights investigation into how a man died in police custody 11 days ago.
Lt. Leander Nevin, at a news conference at Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in North Baltimore, also accused the media and local ministers "with making it [the situation] look like a racial issue when it was a police issue."
The union president said the department's homicide unit and internal investigation division is capable of conducting the investigation, and he called upon the state's attorney's office to prosecute any witness who lies to investigators.
"They grandstand for TV and say anything they want to and they aren't held accountable, so they have no reason not to lie," he said.
Some witnesses claim to have seen an incident July 2 involving Mr. Chapman and city police. Mr. Chapman's death touched off a round of community protests fueled by reports that he had been beaten to death by police.
A preliminary autopsy report indicates that Mr. Chapman did not die from blunt force trauma, according to city police.
Calling the man who died, Jesse Chapman, 30, a drug-abusing "wife-beater," Lieutenant Nevin said the West Baltimore man was "the best informant the Baltimore police ever had." He would not elaborate.
The lieutenant said Mr. Frazier's support of an FBI probe and the mayor's sending a high-ranking city official to Mr. Chapman's funeral over the weekend sends a message to officers that they will never get support.
"It appears that everyone in this city is out to destroy the confidence of the officers on the beat," Lieutenant Nevin said. He accused the commissioner of putting the five officers involved in the arrest on desk duty only after U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume intervened.
"This makes the toughest job in the world even tougher," he said.
Police spokesman Sam Ringgold said the commissioner "understands it is the FOP's job to back its members," but added that the commissioner's job is "to make decisions that are in the best interest of the city."
The spokesman would not comment on whether Mr. Chapman was an informant. He said the department does not confirm or deny whether any individual works as an informant in order to to protect the informants and their families. He called the FOP's statement "irresponsible."
At the news conference, Lieutenant Nevin also said the witnesses' decision yesterday to shun the state's attorney's office by refusing to go downtown for interviews further clouds their claims.
The witnesses instead met privately with a local minister, saying they didn't trust authorities and felt intimidated by city police.
"We certainly want to cooperate with the Police Department, but we want the witnesses to feel comfortable," said the minister, Elder Clyde Harris, a minister who lives near where Mr. Chapman was arrested in the 1100 block of N. Fulton Ave.
"You can't classify this as impeding," he said. "This is an important case. We want it to be successful. . . . We're carrying the agenda here."
According to Mr. Harris, the witnesses who were supposed to meet with an assistant state's attorney yesterday were James E. Breakfield, Joseph Whynder, Curtis Faulcon, Wanita Nance and Evette Caldwell.
At a community meeting last night at First Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Fulton Avenue, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke urged the witnesses to come forward with whatever information they have.
"We need first-hand information. If we don't get that, this thing will drag and drag and drag," Mr. Schmoke told several of the witnesses who attended the meeting. "Please, please, I ask you to work with the state's attorney on this."
The witnesses agreed with a proposal by the mayor to meet with investigators at another location in the Western District. A date for that meeting has not yet been scheduled.
They also told the mayor that they don't want to meet individually with investigators and instead want to provide information as a group.
Several of the witnesses claimed to have seen five Western District police officers beat Mr. Chapman severely after his arrest, then throw him into a police wagon. The officers had arrested Mr. Chapman after a fight he had with his girlfriend.