Read more:
The initial story that appeared the weekend of the fight. — Sunday, October 25, 2009
The city threatened to close the investigation — Saturday, November 14, 2009
The victim comes forward to keep investigation open — Tuesday, November 17, 2009
The city turns over investigation to Attorney General with no recommendation — Friday, December 18, 2009
Officers cleared after bar fight: Details ‘unclear’ in altercation that broke nose of black patron — Saturday, February 27, 2010

Off-duty officers accused in fight

Civilian alleges cops attacked him in bar

By GINGER GIBSON

The News Journal — Sunday, November 1, 2009

A fight in a Wilmington bar involving two white, off-duty police officers and two men, one black and one Hispanic, is under review by police department investigators for possible police misconduct and allegations of racial taunts.

The early-morning fight began inside Dude’s Sports Bar, owned by Wilmington police Sgt. Mark Christopher, and spilled onto Union Street, where patrol officers from Wilmington and troopers from the state police briefly clashed while trying to subdue the four men.

At one point, a uniformed patrol officer applied an electric Taser to trooper Vincent Clemons, who was off-duty and struggling with another man.

State and city police have released few details, declining to identify by name anyone in the fight, but they have acknowledged that a Wilmington officer and a state trooper were involved. No arrests have been made.

“Chief Michael Szczerba assures the public and all involved in this incident that it is being thoroughly investigated, and further states that any and all allegations will be reviewed,” Wilmington police spokesman Sgt. Steven Barnes wrote in an e-mail. Police would not acknowledge any racial complaint, but Barnes said: “If an allegation of a racial slur is made by anyone, it will be thoroughly investigated.”

Not satisfied by the police’s response, City Councilman Mike Brown has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate. The office confirmed that it received “a correspondence” from Brown but would not comment further.

Brown said it was a racially charged fight and an “outrage.”

The incident began after David Pitts, 21, walked into Dude’s around 1:30 a.m. Oct. 24 and ordered a beer.

Pitts’ friends, a woman and Oscar Chapman, also 21, were waiting for him outside.

Even though alcohol service stops at 1 a.m. in Delaware, Pitts said, patrons were still in the bar.

Pitts was told by the bartender that last call was over and he needed to leave. Instead, Pitts said, he asked a woman in the bar who was still drinking if she would order a beer for him. Seconds later, Pitts said, he was attacked and beaten by several men shouting racial slurs.

Someone told Pitts to get “his black ass” out of the bar, Pitts told The News Journal.

Known as cop bar

Dude’s Sports Bar, opened by Christopher in June 2008, is a small corner bar on Union Street next door to a fire station. A favorite watering hole for some off-duty police officers, the bar advertises “flip cup” drinking competitions and often, including the night of the incident, a DJ who draws a younger crowd.

Reached by telephone, Christopher declined to comment, referring calls about the incident to the police department’s spokesman.

Clemons, 2006 trooper of the year and a former Wilmington officer, told The News Journal to contact his lawyer, defense attorney Joe Hurley. Clemons has been placed on administrative leave, but Hurley denied any wrongdoing by the state trooper. He said Clemons never mentioned the race of the two civilians.

“That would have been something important,” Hurley said.

During the fight, Pitts said, four men tried to pick him up to throw him out of the bar. He said he doesn’t remember much after that, except volleys of punches. “I never got a punch off,” Pitts said.

At some point, Pitts said, Chapman entered the bar and joined the fray, which tumbled into the street. The next moment of clarity for Pitts, he said, was when two on-duty patrol officers pulled a bartender off him as Pitts’ head hit the sidewalk.

According to Hurley, his client, Clemons, said Chapman entered the bar and took a swing at Christopher. Clemons intervened only to protect Christopher. Hurley said his client got “the best” of Chapman.

“If you’re unlucky and you are at the moment getting the best of the person, then you look like the bad guy,” Hurley said.

He called it “unusual” that no one got charged but said since Christopher and Clemons were “getting the best” of Chapman and Pitts at the time, police likely recognized they were off-duty officers and decided to investigate further.

“Clemons discharges his duties,” Hurley said. “And for his trouble he gets Tasered.”

Pitts said he was handcuffed and put into the back seat of a patrol car. He didn’t know until then — when one of the responding officers told him — that he was fighting with off-duty officers, Pitts said.

Pitts said he complained about his injuries, but an officer said he was faking and tried to release him, Pitts said.

“All the sudden, I felt like Jell-O,” Pitts said. Pitts said he started having trouble breathing. An ambulance arrived and he was taken to Wilmington Hospital. Pitts said he was handcuffed to the bed while his injuries were examined.

Hospital records describe damage to the muscle on the inner wall of the chest cavity, and advise him to ice his bruised head and his right eye, which was swollen shut.

Eventually, an officer came in and asked for his statement, Pitts said. The officer then removed the handcuffs and told Pitts he could go home, he said. Pitts’ discharge papers are marked 6:30 a.m.

The officer didn’t leave a contact card, but told Pitts he might be contacted to identify the men in a lineup, Pitts said. On Friday, police asked Pitts to come in for an interview next week.

Chapman, meanwhile, has retained an attorney. He declined to talk at length about the incident.

Pitts, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to drug possession and received probation, said he thought his days of scuffles with the police were over, adding that he got into trouble as a teen but had matured since then.

Chapman also was arrested once before, in 2006, on criminal mischief charges.

Argument among police

According to accounts he’s heard from police who were at the scene, Councilman Brown said a disagreement broke out when Wilmington police shocked the state trooper with a Taser and threatened to arrest him. An argument ensued between city and state police, Brown said, until city police were convinced to let someone take the trooper home.

Wilmington community leader the Rev. Christopher Bullock said many people are concerned about the incident, but the public should wait for the investigation to be completed so all the facts are made public.

“I think we should address it head-on,” Bullock said. “All police are not bad, but when you have a few bad apples in the batch, it gives the whole department a black eye.”

State police spokesman Sgt. Walter Newton said his agency is handling the incident as a personnel matter. He said the investigation was being conducted by Wilmington police, so he was not privy to the details.

“I don’t know who is the suspect or who is the victim. If [the trooper] turns out to be a victim, I would feel horrible,” Newton said.

State police Col. Robert M. Coupe and Szczerba have discussed the matter, Newton said, and it is their understanding that there were no problems between city and state police at the scene.

Barnes also said city police were not aware of a disagreement between the departments.