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US MD: Police Rule Was Ignored Before Death

Media Awareness ProjectPubdate: Mon, 21 Feb 2000

Source: Washington Post (DC)

US MD: Police Rule Was Ignored Before Death

Author: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post Staff Writer

Pr. George’s Manual Says To Get Suspect on Drugs HelpPrince George’s County police failed to follow their rules for handling drugged-out suspects when, according to their account, they left Elmer Clayton Newman Jr. handcuffed in a cell and waited more than an hour to get him medical help before he died.

According to the police department’s General Order Manual, officers are supposed to take suspects to a hospital as soon as they “exhibit bizarre behavior,” or complain of sickness, or if it is obvious that the person is high on drugs.

Newman, 29, was arrested early in the morning of Sept. 22 after officers responded to his Suitland apartment for a 911 call. Police said he attacked them with his fists for no reason, was in a state of “delirium” and acted so out of control that they had to use pepper spray to subdue him.

But instead of driving to a hospital, as their orders dictate, the Prince George’s officers took Newman to the Oxon Hill district station, where they locked him in a cell with his handcuffs still on. Police said Newman continued to thrash around and beat his head against the wall, but they did not call paramedics until an hour later when they noticed he had passed out.

Police officials declined to comment on why Newman wasn’t given medical treatment earlier, saying the case was still under investigation. “That I can’t answer,” said Royce D. Holloway, a police spokesman.

After completing an autopsy, the Maryland chief medical examiner ruled the case a homicide, attributing Newman’s death to both a cocaine overdose and injuries he sustained at the hands of police. The FBI and Prince George’s prosecutors are conducting separate investigations.

Five months later, with authorities saying little else, exactly what happened to Elmer Newman remains unclear. Prince George’s police have given conflicting accounts of several key aspects of the case and have been challenged by witnesses on other points, according to documents and interviews.

Shortly after Newman died, for example, police said he had sustained “contusions” to his wrists when officers handcuffed him but did not appear to have any other injuries. Last week, however, police acknowledged that the medical examiner’s report states Newman suffered neck and chest injuries so severe that they contributed to his death.

Police also have given contradictory statements about how many officers were involved.

In September, police said they placed five officers on routine administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. Last week, however, they said that seven officers actually had been put on leave.

Holloway said the seven officers were allowed to return to work last Friday and had been assigned desk jobs. He said he could not explain why they were permitted to come back to work with the investigation still open.

Other parts of the police department’s story have been questioned. For instance, Police Chief John S. Farrell described Newman as a “huge” man who weighed 300 pounds and fought the officers with “tremendous strength,” even after police handcuffed him.

But Newman’s relatives said he weighed no more than 230 pounds. And a 65-year-old neighbor who saw Newman’s arrest through the peephole of her apartment across the hall said he did not resist as two officers detained him and led him from the building.

Christopher A. Griffiths, an attorney for Newman’s family, said police bungled the case from the start.

“They killed him by leaving him on the floor of that jail cell to die,” he said. “It was deliberate. Why were they beating him and restraining him and keeping him in a holding cell? Why wasn’t he taken to the hospital?”

Prince George’s community leaders who monitor the police department said the lack of clear answers also has made them skeptical.

“There is something fishy and suspicious about this,” said Eugene Grant, a Seat Pleasant resident who is a member of Farrell’s police advisory board. “I still don’t think the truth has come out . . . . It’s difficult to trust anything [the police] say.”

Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the Prince George’s chapter of the NAACP, said she plans to meet with Farrell and County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) to discuss the Newman case and other instances in which people died after struggling with police.

“I expect the police to bring a person into submission without killing them,” she said.

Newman was one of eight people who died in 1999 after struggling with Prince George’s police, including five men who were fatally shot during altercations. Three of the deaths remain under investigation by local authorities. Officers involved in the other cases were cleared by prosecutors and grand juries, police said.

A Prince George’s native, Elmer Newman grew up in Capitol Heights with his mother and two older sisters and graduated from Bowie High School. Family members said he worked an assortment of odd jobs, most recently taking inventory in warehouses.

His mother, Clarcy Newman, said he had six children but never married. He lived with his mother until a few months before his death, when he moved into an apartment in Suitland with a girlfriend.

“He was a mother’s boy–we spoiled him to death,” Clarcy Newman said. “He was real quiet and liked to stay in the house most of the time. But he was a really fun-loving person who loved to make people laugh.”

Newman was convicted once, in March 1991, of a single count of theft and given a suspended sentence, according to Prince George’s court records.

There is no indication that he had any more encounters with the police until Sept. 22, 1999, when he picked up the phone in his apartment at 2:18 a.m. and called 911 to report a break-in.

It is unclear what happened after that. Police refused to release a tape of the 911 call. They also refused to disclose records of police radio dispatches that would reveal how many officers responded to the incident and pinpoint their movements.

Newman was taken by ambulance from the police station to Fort Washington Hospital at 4:11 a.m. and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. His body was then taken to the state medical examiner’s morgue in Baltimore.

Theodore King, the examiner who conducted the autopsy, ruled the cause of death as “cardiac arrhythmia . . . related to cocaine intoxication and multiple neck and chest injuries related to restraint during police custody,” according to police. He also ruled the death a homicide.

King declined to comment and would not release the full autopsy report, saying the matter was still under investigation by police. Prince George’s police also refused to release their copy of the autopsy findings, referring inquiries to the medical examiner’s office.

Police said they have turned over the results of their investigation to the Prince George’s State’s Attorney’s Office, which is expected to bring the case to a grand jury. It will be up to prosecutors and the grand jury to determine if officers’ actions were justified or if criminal charges are warranted.

Farrell played down the homicide ruling by the medical examiner, saying that it didn’t mean that officers did anything wrong. “It’s not unusual where they call it a homicide,” he said of cases, such as fatal shootings, in which people die after struggling with police.

But forensic pathologists interviewed by The Washington Post said the medical examiner was making a clear distinction by ruling Newman’s death a homicide, as opposed to an accident.

“It becomes a judgment call as to how the police are restraining him,” said Robert Kirschner, former deputy chief medical examiner in Cook County, Ill. “If there’s evidence that the restraint was excessive, then [the medical examiners] would probably call it a homicide.”

Added Jonathan L. Arden, the D.C. medical examiner: “That’s the judgment call that has to be based on the autopsy findings and investigation. You have to weigh how severe the injuries are and other factors.”

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