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'I only ever wanted justice,' says 18-year-old allegedly assaulted by Baltimore officer

Melvin Townes of West Baltimore stands with a "Justice 4 Freddie Gray" sign in front of a police officer. Protesters gathered at McKeldin Square July 8, 2016, and then marched to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Melvin Townes of West Baltimore stands with a "Justice 4 Freddie Gray" sign in front of a police officer. Protesters gathered at McKeldin Square July 8, 2016, and then marched to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. (Caitlin Faw / Baltimore Sun)

When Melvin Townes looks in the mirror, his gaze jumps to the small scar just below his left eye.

It’s a reminder of July 5, 2016 — the night, Townes says, a Baltimore police officer slammed the then-16-year-old to the ground, put a knee on his back and struck him repeatedly.

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Jurors recently indicted Officer Carlos Rivera-Martinez on charges of first-degree assault and misconduct in office for his alleged actions that night, near downtown’s War Memorial.

Townes, now 18, said he’s ready to talk about the incident now that “justice was served.”

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“I only ever wanted justice,” the West Baltimore resident said. “No one deserves to go through anything like that.”

Rivera-Martinez, 31, has been suspended without pay since March. Police previously declined to provide details on the incident, citing the need to provide evidence at trial. Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.

The indictment released Tuesday by the state’s attorney’s office alleges that Rivera-Martinez “did while acting in his capacity as a duly sworn police officer for the Baltimore City Police Department corruptly commit a unlawful act in a wrongful or improper manner, in violation of the Common Law; against the peace, government and the dignity of the State.”

Townes said he was on his way to his brother’s house on that July night when he saw a police officer in the process of arresting another man near 100 N. Gay St. He walked over, thinking back to previous highly publicized instances of police brutality, both in his city and across the country.

Two years earlier, a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The next night — on July 6, 2016 — 32-year-old Philando Castile would be killed by police during a traffic stop.

Townes said he wanted to observe the situation, to make sure the man was OK.

He said a police officer asked Townes multiple times to leave the scene, and he eventually walked — and then ran — away. As he did, Townes recalls Rivera-Martinez chasing after him before slamming him to the ground and striking him in the face.

While he took the hits, Townes said, he felt like he was no longer human.

“I just hoped I could walk away,” he said. “I hoped I’d be alive after that.”

Jurors indicted a Baltimore police officer on first-degree assault and misconduct in office for a 2016 incident near the War Memorial, according to court filings released Tuesday by the state’s attorney’s office.

He was taken to the hospital later that night, where he was treated for a fractured leg and facial cuts. He walked on crutches for a week, he said, but never reported what happened to him.

“Why would you beat on a teenager like that? I’m not a dangerous person,” he said. “I had no weapon on me. I did nothing wrong.”

Townes continued to protest police brutality. Three days after the alleged attack, a Baltimore Sun photographer snapped a picture of him during a demonstration at McKeldin Square. With both his hands thrust in the air, Townes holds up a sign reading, “Justice 4 Freddie Gray,” as a white police officer looks out at him from his patrol car.

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Two years after the incident near the War Memorial, Townes said, detectives reached out to him. They told him they had seen the body camera footage from that night.

Townes said he was shocked the incident was brought back to his attention so long after the fact, but he’s thankful to the state’s attorney for pursuing the case.

City Councilman Brandon Scott has questioned why it took so long for the officer to be indicted.

Townes, participating in a protest in July 2016, says he was struck repeatedly that month by a police officer. Jurors recently indicted Officer Carlos Rivera-Martinez on charges of first-degree assault and misconduct in office for his alleged actions that night,
Townes, participating in a protest in July 2016, says he was struck repeatedly that month by a police officer. Jurors recently indicted Officer Carlos Rivera-Martinez on charges of first-degree assault and misconduct in office for his alleged actions that night, (Caitlin Faw / Baltimore Sun)

In a statement Tuesday, police spokesman T.J. Smith said the Special Investigation Response Team, known as SIRT, investigated the situation and “observed a use of force that appeared to be excessive.” Smith said the team alerted prosecutors of their findings about six months ago.

“After thoroughly reviewing, they forwarded the case to the State’s Attorney’s Office,” he said. “This case originated in the district and we believe the system worked as it should to capture this incident for further investigation. Days prior to this situation, the new use-of-force policy was unveiled, July 1, 2016.”

Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis created SIRT in 2015. The move came amid the U.S. Department of Justice’s review of the agency after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of injuries suffered while in police custody.

Smith said many levels of review had to take place, contributing to the amount of time it took before Rivera-Martinez was charged. District-level staff pulled surveillance footage connected to the incident, as required by the use-of-force policy adopted two years ago, before identifying the incident for review by SIRT and eventually the state’s attorney.

Rivera-Martinez is scheduled to be arraigned July 24. He did not have a lawyer listed in online court records.

Rivera-Martinez was hired by the Police Department in 2010, according to online records. He was involved in an unrelated shooting in late January, Smith said.

Two years after the incident, Townes said, he still sometimes feels nervous in police officers’ presence. He doesn’t argue, and he gives them his respect.

“I don’t want to end up in that situation again,” he said. “I’m still trying to find myself as a young man. I’m still trying to pursue greatness.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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