Bad Seeds: Baltimore police misconduct profiled in lawsuits portrays a department beset by costly allegations of illegal violence and dishonesty

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 30, 2014

After Baltimore police officer Vincent Cosom apparently sucker-punched Kollin Truss at Greenmount and North avenues in June, it took about three months before a video of the incident hit the internet, prompting the matter to go viral in a maelstrom of media coverage and official handwringing.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts reacted quickly, holding a press conference on Sept. 16 at police headquarters. Speaking before a battery of television cameras and backed by a phalanx of white-shirted high-level police the day after Truss filed suit against Cosom, he said, “much like the public, I was shocked, I’m outraged, I’m disgusted by what I saw by an employee of the Baltimore Police Department.”

Batts, who has had his post for two years now, also acknowledged the incident was part of a broader police-misconduct problem that he’s been trying to tackle, saying that “these issues didn’t take place or were not built in the last two years,” and that “it’s going to take more than the last two years to correct them, but they will be corrected.”

Deputy police commissioner Jerry Rodriguez also took to the podium, asserting that “what defines the Baltimore police department is not just one incident” and that there are “many challenges that these officers face on a daily basis, in large numbers . . . in a very professional and heroic way.”

Batts suggested a way forward: “We rebound by doing the job correctly, professionally, constitutionally,” he said. For those who don’t work that way, he had foreboding words: “If there’s bad apples within the organization, we move them out. We get rid of them.”

In many cases, though, the damage is already done, and taxpayers have had to pay. A parade of settlements involving legal claims of police misconduct have come before the Baltimore Board of Estimates this year, including: $49,000 to Charles Faulkner, who claimed he was beaten while in handcuffs during his arrest; $63,000 to Ashley Overbey, on whom police used a stun gun in her apartment; $40,000 to Alex C. Dickson, who was injured in a fight with police trying to enter his apartment; $62,000 to Bolaji Obe and Akinola Adesanya, who said an officer assaulted them in a parking garage; $26,500 to Leah Forde, who’d claimed she’d been falsely arrested and assaulted by an officer; and $75,000 to John Bonkowski, who said officers pulled him out of his car and assaulted him after he’d left a parking garage without paying. The amounts approved for settlement payments from the public coffers do not, of course, include the litigation costs already incurred by having to mount defenses to the claims.

The lawsuits keep coming. The same day Truss sued Cosom, Abduljaami Salaam filed one in federal court against several officers and Batts, claiming he was brutally attacked in July 2013 after witnessing the officers assaulting another man nearby. Salaam describes driving by the prior assault while it was in progress and then parking his car in his nearby driveway, when the officers approached and dragged him out of his car, beat him, hogtied him, and then continued to beat and kick him before falsely arresting him on eluding-police charges that were later dropped. Earlier, on Sept. 5, Jermaine Lyons sued three officers, claiming they cavity-searched him in full public view in May 2013 after they stopped him as he was bicycling and asked him if he had any he drugs—a question he answered in the negative.

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is taking concrete steps to heal the damage to community trust that past bad conduct has wrought, including pursuing an effort to have police wear body cameras that record their actions and following the constructive criticism provided by an external audit of its internal-affairs function that investigates misconduct. Batts’ efforts have included the appointment of Lt. Col. Melvin Russell as chief of community partnerships, a new initiative designed to build bridges between BPD, communities, and their institutions, such as churches, in order to enhance public trust in the department.

Last year at an event at Enoch Pratt Central Library, Russell said Batts is trying “to go after the bad seeds in the department and pull them by the root and get’em out of the agency,” according to a transcript of the event. Batts, Russell added, “doesn’t accept it and he’s doin’ his best to root it out of his department.”

The department’s recent bad publicity includes a lengthy Baltimore Sun investigative story, published on Sept. 28, about more than 100 settled lawsuits involving claims of police brutality and other civil-rights violations. The story says that taxpayers have paid more than $11 million in settlements and litigation costs since January 2011.

The ongoing public outrage has not occurred in a vacuum. The Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spawned not only unrest in that city, but a national outcry over law-enforcement culture and its perceived insensitivity to communities’ desires to assure safety without intrusive, fearsome, dishonest, and brutal police tactics. A survey of recent police-misconduct litigation involving BPD suggests that, in Baltimore, such concerns may not be unfounded.

Makia Smith

In March 2012, Makia Smith was stopped in traffic when she noticed four BPD officers—Nathan Church, William Pilkerton Jr., Nathan Ulmer, and Kenneth Campbell—beating a man, and began using her cellphone to take pictures of the spectacle. One of the officers, Nathan Church, noticed what Smith was doing, and proceeded to grab and destroy the telephone by stomping on it before pulling Smith out of her car and beating her. The other three officers then joined in on the assault before arresting Smith, while threatening to transport her 2-year-old daughter, who was in car’s back seat, to the Department of Social Services. Charges that Smith assaulted Church and obstructed traffic with her car were later dropped. Smith received medical treatment for injuries to her face, neck, and body.

U.S. District Court judge Marvin Garbis in March ruled that Smith’s claims against BPD and Batts could go forward, despite their efforts to have them dismissed, and so the case is proceeding to two trials: first as to the individual officers, then as to BPD and Batts.

Church tried to have Smith’s lawsuit stayed because he’d sought bankruptcy protection shortly after it was filed, but Garbis denied the request, noting, “it appears that Defendant Church made false statements, under oath, to the United States Bankruptcy Court, regarding the pendency of the instant lawsuit.” More recently, former Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer, now with Whiteford, Taylor, and Preston, and helping represent Church and the other officers, on Sept. 15 filed a letter to Garbis, asking the judge to allow the officers to file motions for summary judgment on the grounds that “Church had probable cause to arrest Ms. Smith,” since she’d “refused lawful orders” to move her car and produce her driver’s license.

One of the officers who joined in the beating of Smith, Ulmer, was named as a defendant in Salaam’s newly filed lawsuit, which, like Smith’s, alleges that “the Officers tormented Mr. Salaam by telling him that his son,” a 3-year-old who was present in the vehicle when Ulmer and the other officers allegedly beat him while he was restrained, “would be sent to Social Services.”

An important element of Smith’s case has been Church’s seizing and smashing the phone she was using to record the officers. The “factual allegations as to the March 8, 2012 incident, combined with the allegation regarding numerous other incidents,” Garbis wrote, “plausibly establish the inference that BCPD had an official policy or custom of preventing citizens from being able to record police officers performing their official duties in public.”

Shortly before Garbis’ ruling was docketed on March 25, BPD announced a new policy allowing citizens to record police conducting their business, as long as the recordings don’t interfere with police business, an announcement that came on the heels of the city agreeing to a $250,000 settlement of a lawsuit brought by a Howard County man who said BPD officers seized his phone and deleted video of them making an arrest at the 2010 Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. The new policy tightens up an earlier one that the U.S. Department of Justice said did not go far enough to protect citizens’ rights.

Troy Williams

Troy Williams says he is cousins with Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the BPD’s chief of community partnerships, a connection that would seem to give him an edge after, as he claims in a lawsuit filed in April, a BPD officer struck him unconscious with a police radio in July 2011 as Williams walked out of a church where he’d gone to attend a friend’s funeral, and police then filed false drug-possession charges against him. The attack, Williams claims, was part of a conspiracy to retaliate against him for filing an earlier police-brutality complaint. Whether or not Williams’ family tie helps his cause remains to be seen, as the court proceedings are at an early stage, with the officers claiming that their alleged conduct was not a conspiracy and fell within the scope of their duties, even if unauthorized.

Williams’ suit asserts that Brian Flynn, the officer who allegedly attacked him, did so because he’d filed an internal-affairs complaint about a month earlier, after seeing another unnamed officer beat a man in a jail cell where Williams had been briefly locked up without charges. Williams claims that the unnamed officer, like Flynn, served under Russell at the time, and that Williams later told Russell about the brutality complaint he’d filed. Flynn only realized he was dealing with his superior’s cousin, the lawsuit explains, after he’d struck Williams unconscious, when another officer arrived on the scene and informed him.

At that point, the lawsuit states, in “an effort to save face,” Flynn asked Williams “where it was” without saying what “it” was, and then “threw Mr. Williams in the backseat” of a cruiser and drove him to the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency room. There, Williams’s scalp was “closed with surgical staples,” and Flynn allegedly told the emergency-room staff “to note in Mr. Williams’ file that Mr. Williams is addicted to heroin, which is a pattern, practice, and/or policy and custom . . . utilized by police officers after they have brutally attacked so-called suspects.” The lawsuit adds that “Mr. Williams is not a heroin addict and Defendant Flynn had no reason to believe that Mr. Williams was a heroin addict.” After Williams’ release from the emergency room, another officer, Dane Hicks, booked him on drug-possession charges that were later dropped, since “there was never any controlled dangerous substance recovered,” the lawsuit states.

Williams’ lawsuit includes allegations that the city is loath to hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. It is “not news to anyone in” BPD or the mayor’s office, the lawsuit states, “that officers are free to make false arrests and manipulate evidence without fear of meaningful punishment or reprimand because their supervisors control their punishments, and there is a pattern, practice, and/or policy and custom” of “not punishing officers’ misconduct or providing meaningful reprimand, many times involving backdoor deals.”


Daniel Rockwell

Rockwell, who court documents describe as “mentally challenged,” fled to the roof of his house when officers arrived there to serve an arrest warrant on him in February 2011, and, as he moved to reenter the house as directed, police officer Clyde Rawlins used a stun gun on him, and Rockwell fell off the roof of his house, resulting in fractured vertebrae. After Rockwell landed on the ground, officers rolled him over onto his stomach and handcuffed him with his arms behind his back.

Rockwell was a minor at the time of the incident. His lawyers’ efforts to obtain police documentation about the incident, which would provide them with the officers’ names and official accounts of what happened so that a lawsuit could be filed, were stymied by BPD, and initially the department took the position that no such records existed. Eventually, Rockwell sued over the issue and won in February 2013, when a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ordered BPD to turn over its records of the incident. Rockwell and his mother, Demetria Holden, filed suit shortly thereafter.

Rockwell’s lawsuit is now in federal court, and in March U.S. District judge Richard Bennett ruled that it survived efforts by BPD and Rawlins to have it dismissed. The case against Rawlins, alleging assault and battery and gross negligence, will be litigated first, followed by claims that BPD engaged in a civil-rights conspiracy by withholding documentation of the incident.

Working on Rockwell’s behalf is Robert Klotz, a police-procedures expert who used to run the Washington, D.C., police department’s special operations division. Klotz is quoted in court filings as saying that the way Rawlins allegedly used the stun gun against Rockwell “would be a violation of the national police standards” and that “no reasonabl[y] trained officer could believe this action would be proper.”

The legal battle over Rockwell’s claims has been pitched. Recently, Rawlins’ attorneys moved to bar Rockwell’s statements from proceedings in the case, since he has been deemed in criminal courts to be incompetent to stand trial. “Rockwell conveniently claims that he is incompetent when it suits his purposes to avoid criminal prosecution,” the filing states, “but then inexplicably becomes competent when it serves his purpose of extracting money from the City of Baltimore.” In addition, the filing claims “Rawlins feared that Rockwell was reaching for a gun,” and “deployed his taser against Rockwell in self-defense.”


Mark Harrell 

Though his case was dismissed in April, the racial-discrimination suit brought by Mark Harrell and a woman, Roslyn Wiggins, revealed what U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake described as “unacceptable behavior by members of the Baltimore City Police Department, including a warrantless home search.” In essence, Harrell and Wiggins may have received a better result in court had they sued not over allegations of discrimination, but over violations of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The suit was filed against BPD officers Joseph Donato, Valentine Nagovich Jr., Iris Martin, and William Rivera. Nagovich and Donato each wrote police reports when, in September 2010, they arrested Harrell for loitering and impeding traffic. Nagovich simply stated Harrell was arrested after he was ordered to stop loitering, and after about 45 minutes, he still was—while also arguing with and cursing at the officers. Donato’s report added that Harrell “appeared to throw a dark object into the door” of a house, and, after Harrell’s arrest, Donato “used force to enter the front door” of the house, damaging the door, despite having no warrant to do so.

In her ruling, Blake wrote that the version of events related by Harrell and Wiggins “adds troubling details regarding police behavior,” including that Donato “completely destroyed” the door to the house and that, when asked what he was arresting Harrell for, Donato said, “I’ll think of something.” A few days later, Harrell was again arrested, and this time when Donato was asked what the charges were, he allegedly responded: “Let’s take it up a notch, how about conspiracy?” Harrell was placed in a police cruiser, at which point he was allegedly shown what appeared to be heroin and asked, “Oh, what do we got here?” After 17 hours in lockup, Harrell was released without charges.

Donato’s been in trouble before, drawing lawsuits for a drug raid based on an allegedly perjured warrant and for allegedly assaulting a man whose cellphone he seized because the man was using the phone to record the police beating two men in handcuffs. Blake’s ruling in the case brought by Harrell and Wiggins states that “since the events alleged in this case, Donato and Rivera have been removed from active duty as a result of disciplinary actions, although they remain employed by the Baltimore City Police Department.”


Thomas Robert Foster Jr.

In a case that shows the potential value of installing surveillance cameras around one’s home, Thomas Robert Foster Jr. and his father and sister sued several BPD officers for false arrest, a falsified sworn statement of probable cause, and an illegal search of their home. The accused officers—Thomas E. Wilson, Keith Gladstone, Carmine Vignola, and Gregory Fisher—have not answered the lawsuit, which was filed last December, but a motions battle that resulted in the city being dismissed as a defendant has revealed key facts and circumstances.

On May 24, 2012, Foster exited his home, an act that was recorded by his surveillance cameras. Moments later, he was arrested by Wilson and Fisher, and Wilson allegedly punched Foster in the face while he was handcuffed. Wilson’s sworn statement to justify Foster’s arrest says he was carrying a black bag containing drugs when he left his house. What the camera recorded, though, was Foster walking out of his house “without a black bag or any similar item in his hands,” according to court documents.

Immediately after arresting Foster, Wilson and Fisher entered Foster’s home without a warrant, and were soon joined by Gladstone and Vignola—all of which was captured on video. Wilson then sought a warrant to search the house, and in doing so swore, once again, that Foster was carrying a black bag with drugs in it. Still, Foster was indicted and held in jail for 197 days before prosecutors declined to pursue the charges.

Foster’s lawsuit points out that Wilson has a track record of “making false representations to a Court,” having drawn a rebuke from a federal judge in a 2003 for telling “knowing lies” in testimony and an affidavits in a criminal case, yet BPD “allowed him to remain in his position as a drug enforcement officer.”


Marlow Humbert

After spending 14 months in jail before rape charges against him were dropped in July 2009, during which time he was dubbed the “Charles Village Rapist” in the media, Humbert in March convinced a federal judge that his malicious-prosecution claims against three BPD officers—Christopher Jones, Dominick Griffin, and Caprice Smith—should proceed. DNA tests excluded Humbert as a suspect within a month of his arrest, yet, despite the victim’s apparent uncertainty in identifying Humbert as the man who raped her, the case continued as Humber languished in jail.

In their effort to establish probable cause to arrest Humbert for the rape, according to the judge’s ruling in the case, officers may have purposefully misconstrued the strength of the victim’s photo-identification of Humbert, and then, at Humbert’s arraignment, they apparently ignored the victim’s statements that she “had even more doubt” that they had the right suspect after seeing Humbert in person.

The defendants contend that the victim’s identification of Humbert was, in fact, positive, and so they continued to prosecute the case, despite the DNA exclusion. The charges were dropped, court documents state, due to the victim “becoming discouraged with the justice system due to numerous postponements,” so “she no longer wanted to participate in the case.”

A one-week trial is scheduled to begin in the federal courthouse in Baltimore next April, but a key question is still undecided: will the victim, who has since moved to Flint, Michigan, be required to testify in person or via live transmission from another location? Court documents say “she reports to fear for her safety” in Baltimore, yet the defense attorneys point out that Flint “is more dangerous than Baltimore” and is “the second most dangerous city in the country.”


Jerome Dale

The way Jerome Dale puts it, in January 2011 he was chased by two men through the streets of Baltimore at night during a snowstorm, escaped his pursuers by catching a passing MTA bus, and then got off the bus to seek protection from police officers at a 7-Eleven—but the officers he was asking for help proceeded to arrest him when the victim of an earlier rape arrived, with the men who had been pursuing Dale, and identified him as the rapist, though one of the officers noted that the identification was weak. As a result, Dale—who in 1979 was awarded the Young American Medal for Bravery by President Ronald Reagan for rescuing two small children from a house fire—spent seven months in jail until DNA exonerated him and the charges were dropped.

Dale’s complaint alleges that BPD officers “knew that they did not have probable cause to” arrest Dale since a “note written by one of Mr. Dale’s arresting officers” stated that “they didn’t believe that Mr. Dale committed the reported rape.” Yet, as they proceeded with the case, they “hindered the testing and production” of his “exonerating DNA evidence,” the complaint continues, “as a means of prolonging the revelation that they had, in fact, arrested and charged another innocent man.” The lawsuit makes references to Humbert’s case, arguing that Dale’s alleged experience is part of a trend, in which “false arrests are made in reported rape cases and, subsequently, the testing and production of exonerating DNA evidence is hindered” while the accused “are left to languish indefinitely in pre-trial incarceration.”

A key part of Dale’s claim is that the police ceased investigating the victim’s reported rape once they’d arrested Dale base on the victim’s identification, and “did not make any attempt to confirm Mr. Dale’s alibis, despite his vehement statements that at least four different people could attest to his whereabouts on the evening” it occurred. This, the lawsuit alleges, goes against federal, state, and city law-enforcement guidance that an “investigation will not be concluded or otherwise cease based solely on a potential eyewitness identification,” but “will continue until all physical evidence has been collected and examined, all witness identified, and all reasonable leads explored.”


Guy Jackson 

After allegedly being forced by two men with guns to drive a stolen vehicle to a West Baltimore intersection, where the men got out and started shooting at someone, Guy Jackson was shot by police while he sat in the car in April 2013. It’s what happened afterward, though, when Jackson was being treated at Maryland Shock Trauma that, according to a federal judge’s July ruling, is a triable claim of unreasonable search and seizure.

BPD homicide detective Julian Min—whose prior police conduct contributed to the city settling a lawsuit over a young man’s false attempted-murder charges—arrived at Shock Trauma about six days later and allegedly told the doctors treating Jackson that he was taking him to the medical facility at the Baltimore City Jail. The doctors advised him not to, but Min escorted Jackson out of the hospital anyway, and instead interrogated him at police headquarters before putting him out on the streets. Jackson was thus left outside near President Street, his jaw wired shut and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach, wearing only a hospital gown.

Jackson, along with the one other man who survived the barrage of police bullets, remains charged with attempted murder, along with handgun and stolen-vehicle counts. But his attorneys maintain he is charged for a crime that prosecutors know he didn’t commit.


Anthony Anderson Sr.

After Anthony Anderson died as a result of a 2012 beating he received by BPD officers Todd Strohman, Michael Vodarick, and Gregg Boyd, his family and his estate sued the officers, the city, and BPD last October. In March, U.S. District Judge George Russell III let the city and BPD out of the case, but it’s proceeding against the officers, who, though the medical examiner ruled Anderson’s death a homicide, were not charged criminally, since their use of force against Anderson was not deemed excessive.

Anderson’s lawyers paint a partial picture of the incident in the lawsuit, not making any mention of the much-publicized facts that police had observed Anderson conducting a hand-to-hand drug deal and that, after they’d restrained him, they found drugs in his mouth. Nonetheless, Russell’s brief recitation of what happened, memorialized in his ruling, bears repeating.

Anderson “was returning home from a local corner store on September 21, 2012,” Russell wrote, “when Officer Strohman approached him from behind in a vacant lot, lifted Anderson from his knees, and threw him to the ground head and neck first. Officer Strohman handcuffed Anderson while he lay on the ground. Moments later, Officers Vodarick and Boyd approached. The three officers proceeded to kick Anderson repeatedly in his ribs, stomach, back, and chest, causing him significant injuries from which he later died.”


Yardell Henderson

In August, Yardell Henderson won a $100,000 verdict from a Baltimore City Circuit Court against BPD officers Kody Taylor and Matthew Sarver, over a 2010 incident in which they beat up Henderson, who was 16 years old and about 120 pounds at the time.

Henderson’s attorney, Cary Hansel, issued a press release after the verdict, claiming that the officers first “provoked” Henderson to run from them “by shouting racial epithets and other insults at him,” and then chased him to behind his home, where, before witnesses, he was “beaten, punched, kicked, choked and handcuffed,” and then “transported to a different location,” where “he was searched and released without charges.”

Hansel argued that the officers’ decision to move Henderson was “part of a cover up so that when supervisors responded to the minor’s new location, there would be no witnesses there to the attack,” and that the incident was “a pretext to search and interrogate” Henderson “about any crime in the area.” Henderson, though, “had no such information to provide them and the search turned up no contraband.”

Taylor and Sarver have left BPD, according to Hansel, and during the trial Taylor refused to testify about what led to his departure: “an integrity sting” that “resulted in allegations that Taylor was involved with pocketing money recovered from an undercover officer posing as an arrestee.”


Christine Abbott

After BPD officers Lee Grishkot and Todd Edick arrived at a party in Hampden in June 2012, responding to a noise complaint, they talked with Jacob Masters Jr. and asked him to put out his cigarette. When Masters refused, they threatened to use a stun gun on him, at which point Christine Abbott intervened, asking the officers and Masters to “calm down” and suggesting there was “no need” to make such threats, according to the lawsuit Abbott filed against Grishkot and Edick last November.

At that point, Abbott claims, the officers “grabbed” her and “threw her to the ground,” causing her “dress to go up over her back, revealing her underwear” and her shoulder to be “cut and bleeding.” When the officers stood her up, her “dress was ripped” and her “breasts were exposed,” yet they “refused to allow” Abbott to “pull up her dress or otherwise conceal her breasts.” They then handcuffed her and put her in a police transport van, but “did not strap or harness her in the back” of the van, which they “maniacally drove” to the police station, “thereby tossing” Abbott “around the interior of the van,” causing “further injuries.”

Abbott was charged with “assault, resisting arrest, obstructing and hindering, and disorderly conduct,” and was detained for 19 hours before being released. The charges against her were later dismissed. Grishkot and Edick have denied wrongdoing, but admit that some of Abbott’s allegations are true, including that they threatened to use a stun gun on Masters and that Grishkot threw Abbott into the van and proceeded to give her a rough ride.

 

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