Off-duty Md. officers charged in fight
GUS G. SENTEMENTES, SUN REPORTER
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company
They were three friends casually talking about famous black men in world history over slices of pizza at a Federal Hill carryout one Saturday evening.
Two men who appeared to have been drinking walked in, ordered food and then inexplicably butted into the friends' conversation, witnesses would later tell police.
Akhenaton R. Bonaparte IV, who is black, said the two white men leveled a steady barrage of insults at him and his two teenage friends inside Maria D's restaurant. One called him a racist, and provoked him into a fight on Light Street that ended, Bonaparte said, with him pinned against a car with his hands cuffed behind his back.
The men were eventually identified as off-duty Baltimore police officers. Bonaparte, bewildered and embarrassed in front of friends and others, said the men never identified themselves.
Bonaparte, an office manager at a doctoral program for higher education at Morgan State University, was not charged with a crime in the incident, which was brought under control by police supervisors and attracted squad cars and a police helicopter.
The confrontation prompted an internal investigation, and the officers -- Jack H. Odom Jr. and Michael D. Brassell -- have been suspended with pay, police said. Bonaparte and his two friends, backed by city prosecutors, are pursuing misdemeanor assault charges against both officers. A trial is scheduled this month.
"My hope is that these officers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even if that means jail time," Bonaparte said in an interview. "I'd like to see them fired, and I'd like an apology from them and the Police Department. And I'd like to see the [department] leadership reprimanded for not properly supervising these officers."
Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said he could not comment on the allegations because of the pending criminal case. The department's general orders state that off-duty officers "shall refrain from consuming intoxicating beverages to the extent that it results in obnoxious or offensive behavior which would discredit them or the Department."
David B. Love, an attorney who represents Brassell, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Gavin Patashnick, who represents Odom, said it was his policy not to comment on pending cases.
The case offers a rare glimpse of individuals pursuing criminal charges against police officers, and prosecutors deciding to press forward with the case. The allegations by Bonaparte and his friends appear to be supported by a police investigation that included taped interviews with several witnesses and other police officers at the scene, an internal affairs report filed with the case's court record shows.
Brassell countered the allegations by filing assault charges against Bonaparte, but prosecutors dismissed the case. A city state's attorney's office spokeswoman declined to comment.
Odom, 44, and Brassell, 33, were assigned to a "special enforcement team" in East Baltimore -- officers typically in uniform who focus on traffic enforcement, serving warrants and "quality of life" crimes, such as loitering, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Both men have been on the force for more than three years.
According to court records, there were at least six people who saw Bonaparte's encounter with the officers unfold the night of Oct. 22. The officers, while armed, never drew their guns, witnesses said.
Bonaparte, 39, said he was discussing a book called World's Great Men of Color with two young women he mentored, Grace Broadwater and Patrice Shelton, both 17.
The two officers walked into the popular eatery and ordered something to eat. While they were waiting, they intruded on Bonaparte's conversation. Brassell in particular, witnesses noted in court documents, was loud and aggressive. One witness confirmed hearing Brassell call Bonaparte a racist, according to the documents.
Two patrons told police that Bonaparte was passive during the exchange. One said she could see a gun and badge attached to the belt of one of the officers.
"And the gentleman sitting down with the badge and the gun was in the black guy's face," Holly Cummings, a witness inside the restaurant, said in her statement to internal affairs. "Like, I don't know what they were talking about, but he was in his face and would not leave him alone, while he was trying to just eat. I don't even know if [Bonaparte] was saying anything back to them."
Bonaparte said he asked a Maria D's manager to call police, but the man refused and told him to go outside, Bonaparte and other witnesses said in interviews with police internal affairs detectives. Bonaparte walked outside to flag down a passing patrol car. Brassell followed him, court papers show.
Brassell touched him, and Bonaparte said he repeated: "Please don't touch me. I don't know you. Keep your hands off me." But the officer kept poking his fingers in Bonaparte's chest, saying, "What are you going to do about it?" Bonaparte said.
Bonaparte said he struck first, punching the man in the face. Then Odom and Brassell, who was bleeding, tackled him onto the hood of a car, according to court documents.
Brian Cummings, husband of Holly Cummings, tried to break up the fight, unaware the two men were police officers, according to an internal affairs report.
"It was kind of a free-for-all for a couple minutes. ... It was pretty much just a melee," Brian Cummings is quoted as saying. He told police that one of the officers put him in a headlock and threatened him with arrest, the internal affairs report said.
Put in handcuffs
As a crowd began to gather, a passing Maryland Transit Administration police officer pulled up to the scene. Brassell identified himself as a police officer and borrowed the MTA officer's handcuffs, which he placed on Bonaparte, the internal affairs report states.
Police supervisors, after interviewing several witnesses, ordered the handcuffs to be taken off Bonaparte and asked him to go to the Southern District station to provide a statement.
Bonaparte said he suffered from pain and swelling in his neck and cuts on his legs and head.
The internal affairs report said that a sergeant and a lieutenant told a police investigator that both officers "appeared to be extremely intoxicated."
"Neither were administered a breathalyzer test, nor were they suspended for this incident," wrote Sgt. Sheri Albrecht, an internal affairs investigator. The officers were later suspended.
Bonaparte's two friends also have filed assault charges against Odom. Shelton alleges that Odom struck her in the face as she tried to help Bonaparte while the men were fighting outside. Broadwater alleges that Odom pushed her as she dialed 911 on a cell phone and put it to Bonaparte's ear as he was being detained by the men.
The officers face a trial in District Court Feb. 28.
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