City threatens to close probe into bar fight

Alleged victims required to make statements at police headquarters

By GINGER GIBSON

The News Journal — Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wilmington’s mayor and police chief on Friday said they will close an incomplete criminal investigation into alleged police misconduct next week, unless the alleged victims meet with investigators.

One man, who contends off-duty officers beat him without provocation last month, says it is fear — not a refusal to cooperate — that has prevented him from going alone into police headquarters. He says he told that to a detective Thursday night.

City officials refused to discuss whether they have made any efforts to reassure the men.

Chief Michael Szczerba and Mayor James Baker said the two men involved in a fight with off-duty police officers have not yet made formal statements in the investigation.

“Chief Szczerba said today that unless the civilians respond by next week to the police department’s request to file a formal statement about the incident on October 24, he will consider the Department’s investigation complete and give the findings to the Attorney General’s Office for review,” the news release said.

The investigation is into an early-morning fight that began inside Dude’s Sports Bar, owned by Wilmington police Sgt. Mark Christopher, and spilled onto Union Street, and allegedly included racial taunts and slurs. At one point, a uniformed patrol officer who arrived at the scene and was attempting to break up the scuffle applied an electric Taser to state trooper Vincent Clemons, who was off-duty and struggling with another man.

The men, David Pitts, 21, and Oscar Chapman, 21, both have said they gave statements to police the night of the incident. Reached by phone Friday, Pitts, who is black, said he had spoken with a Wilmington detective the day before, on Thursday, telling him that he was fearful of speaking to police alone. Pitts said he told the detective he plans to hire a lawyer.

Chapman, who is Hispanic, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Wilmington City Councilman Mike Brown said the setting of a deadline is nothing more than an attempt to make the city look like they’re making an effort to investigate the incident even if they actually aren’t.

“I think the city would have [the charges] gone tomorrow if they could,” Brown said. “I’m not letting it go away. It’s not going to go away.”

‘I didn’t do anything wrong’

Pitts said he told the detective on Thursday he was willing to participate in a lineup to identify the officers involved in the altercation. Pitts said he became uneasy when the detective responded that he didn’t think Pitts would recognize the officers because it has been several weeks since the incident. Pitts said he became concerned that police wouldn’t take his statement seriously.

“I know what happened, and I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Pitts said.

In the news release, Wilmington police gave this description of their efforts to get statements from Pitts and Chapman: “The chief said police investigators made personal contact with the two civilians to set up an appointment at police headquarters in order to receive their statements, visited their residences and left contact information about how to set up an appointment, and have sent registered letters to their respective residences asking them to make arrangements to give the department their formal statements,” the city news release said.

Wilmington police have confirmed that an altercation occurred involving two off-duty officers but refused to name them. At the time of the incident, they said that when their investigation was complete, they would release more details. Clemons’ lawyer and Christopher have confirmed they were the unnamed officers.

Clemons’ lawyer, Joe Hurley, has denied any wrongdoing by the trooper. Hurley said Clemons got involved in the altercation after Chapman attacked Christopher. Christopher would not comment.

City officials said they would submit the investigation to the Attorney General’s Office, even if it is incomplete.

Jason Miller, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Wilmington police have been given no deadline for completing their investigation.

“We encourage any police agency to take the time to complete a thorough investigation,” Miller said.

John Rago, spokesman for Baker, said he could not confirm whether a detective had spoken with Pitts on Thursday. Baker did not respond to requests for an interview.

Rago said the written statement speaks for itself.

“All I’m telling you is, we’re saying what we’re saying,” Rago said.

Councilman Brown, who has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the incident, said he was unaware the police were concerned that Pitts and Chapman had not yet made official statements until he saw the city’s news release on Friday.

Brown said he offered to help reassure the men for the administration and police..

“I offered to mediate,” Brown said. “I want to be in the room because [Pitts is] scared. He’s frightened. I want to talk to him.”

Brown said Pitts had given a statement at the hospital. Brown said he has provided a recording of another statement by Pitts about the incident to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“How many statements and interviews does he have to give?” Brown said.

Drewry Fennell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, described as “unusual” the public demand to “step forward” of two people whose identities and whereabouts are known.

In any incident involving an allegation of police misconduct, Fennell said, she would expect the department to take steps to help the victims feel safe giving their statements.

“There is a little twist in that there is a law enforcement person involved,” she said. “You may have to have some things that happen to allow the victim to feel safe coming to the police to talk about potential wrongdoing by one of their own.”