In one of his early tests as police commissioner of Baltimore, Michael Harrison ordered the arrest of a veteran sergeant and said he was deeply disturbed to see the officer take down a bystander for mouthing off.
The city police union fired back Friday, with the union president calling Harrison’s decision a rush to judgment.
Harrison and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby called a news conference Thursday night to announce charges of misconduct, second-degree assault and false imprisonment against Sgt. Ethan Newberg, 49. Baltimore’s top cop and prosecutor were firm, saying they would not tolerate unprovoked aggression. A body camera had captured an encounter between Newberg and the bystander, Lee Dotson, in Southwest Baltimore.
“From what I saw, the man did nothing to provoke Sgt. Newberg, whose actions were not just wrong but deeply disturbing,” Harrison said. “Be tough on crime, but be soft on people.”
On Friday, Dotson was making plans for his upcoming wedding and feeling frustrated over his recent arrest when his phone rang with the news. Criminal charges had been dropped against the 28-year-old from Northwest Baltimore. Instead, police had charged Newberg, the sergeant who brought him to the ground last week.
“I didn’t even know,” said Dotson, who learned it from a reporter. “Can I sue?”
Dotson said he had never before encountered Newberg, but the sergeant seemed to want to teach him a lesson for talking back.
“He was like, ‘Was it worth it? Was it worth you getting locked up?’” Dotson said.
Newberg could not be reached Friday. Online court records did not list his attorney.
Dotson had figured the charges against him wouldn’t stick anyway.
“He was like, ‘I just want to inconvenience you,’” Dotson said. “’He said that, ‘As long as I don’t hear from you, I won’t come to court.’”
With 24 years on the force, Newberg clocked enough overtime to receive $243,000 last fiscal year, the second most pay of any city employee, even more than the mayor. He was arrested Thursday and has been released on bail. Harrison has not released the body-camera footage to the public.
The police union accused Harrison of taking tougher action against Newberg than the teens who crowded the Inner Harbor last month, some of whom took to fighting and vandalism.
“I was struck by how willing the Commissioner was to condemn an on duty, uniformed Police Sergeant after watching the body worn camera,” wrote Sgt. Mike Mancuso, the union president. “However, about two weeks ago, this same Commissioner would not condemn those who robbed and assaulted innocent citizens at the Inner Harbor, which was also captured on video.”
The encounter between Newberg and Dotson happened May 30. Dotson said he was walking back from a crab carryout — they were sold out of crabs — when he saw that Newberg and another officer had a man in custody in the 2300 block of Ashton St.
“Don’t make that man sit on the wet ground,” Dotson told them, according to the charging documents against Newberg.
Investigators reviewed the body camera footage and described the encounter in the charging documents.
“Why don’t you mind your business,” Newberg said.
Dotson walked on, investigators wrote, but he continued to call out, saying police shouldn’t have the man on the wet ground.
Newberg got up and ran after Dotson, investigators wrote.
“Like he was coming to tackle me,” Dotson said Friday.
Newberg grabbed Dotson by the upper arm, investigators wrote. Dotson yanked his arm away, he said. Then the second officer came up behind him, Dotson said. The two officers brought him to the ground.
“It felt like they were putting knees and feet in my back,” Dotson said. “I’m yelling, like ‘Man, why you locking me up?’”
In the charging documents, investigators wrote that Dotson called out, “Get off of me! Get off of me! I’m suing. It’s freedom of speech. You are violating my amendments.”
A crowd gathered. Some recorded the arrest on their cellphones. Then the officers put Dotson in a van and drove him off. They charged him with disorderly conduct, interfering with an arrest and drug charges. The officers wrote that they found a little bag of suspected cocaine hidden beneath his pants; Dotson declined Friday to discuss the drug charge; prosecutors dropped that charge, too.
In explaining why they charged Dotson, the officers wrote that he interfered with their arrest, incited a hostile crowd and squared off against them in an aggressive and combative stance. Harrison, however, said the footage showed Dotson “walking calmly away after offering his opinion that Sgt. Newberg should have not placed the suspect on a wet sidewalk.”
Prosecutors have thrown out all charges against Dotson.
In the charging documents against Newberg, investigators also wrote that the sergeant became belligerent toward the bystanders, threatening and cursing at them.
“It is also depicted on the body-worn camera that when a Hispanic officer approached Sergeant Newberg and suggested that he ‘relax,’ Sergeant Newberg told the Hispanic officer to never question the way he does things and ordered him to leave the scene, and later called him ‘a kumbaya officer.’”
Newberg is suspended without pay. Harrison said he was tipped off to the incident when the department’s integrity bureau came across the body-camera footage.
Tyenisha McCullough, Dotson’s fiancée, expressed outrage over the incident. “Make sure they charge [Newberg] how they would have charged [Dotson].”
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Council President Brandon Scott both condemned Newberg’s actions.
The incident has brought yet another black eye to the force. It comes even as a rookie cop was standing trial on assault charges after he was captured on cellphone video punching a man on the street last summer. The trial of Arthur Williams, who has since resigned, continues Monday.
In addition, Officer Michael O’Sullivan was indicted recently on charges of perjury and misconduct after prosecutors say he provided false testimony in a criminal case last year.
Newberg was hired in June 1995 and assigned to the Southwestern District.
His case has renewed attention to the high costs of police overtime. The sergeant earned more than double his base salary of $100,000. His pay last year was exceeded only by Sgt. William Harris Jr., who received $250,000 on a base salary of $100,000. City Council members have long called on the police department to rein in overtime spending.
Forty of the 50 highest-paid city employees last fiscal year worked in the police department.
Baltimore Sun reporters Phil Davis and Talia Richman contributed to this article.