The agent for a Baltimore Ravens rookie linebacker said his client was targeted by police at the Inner Harbor because he is black, a claim that has sparked debate over racial profiling as police step up enforcement there in the wake of a recent shooting.
Tony Fein was charged Sunday in the assault of a white police officer who received a tip from Harborplace security that a group of men were passing around a large silver object suspected of being a firearm. The device turned out to be a mobile phone. Fein, a 27-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, was twice asked to stand up and refused, shoving the officer in the chest, police said.
Milton "Dee" Hobbs Jr., Fein's Mississippi-based agent, said Monday that Fein was approached from behind and did not know that Sgt. Joseph Donato was a police officer. He disputed that Fein shoved Donato, and claimed police approached Fein because he was a black man wearing a baggy hooded sweat shirt.
"They had a gang incident a week ago, so I don't see how anybody could deny that on its face," Hobbs said. Fein believes that police were "being aggressive," Hobbs said, "but I understand to a certain extent where the officer is coming from."
Police rejected the claim that officers approached Fein because of his race. Private security for Harborplace alerted police about the possibility of a weapon, a claim that officers must take seriously, said Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman.
"The incident could have easily been avoided," Guglielmi said, if Fein and others at the table had "cooperated with police and explained the situation."
In his first public remarks since his arrest, Fein spoke briefly after Monday night's game against the New York Jets.
"Let me be innocent until proven guilty," he said. "I'm not going to get into the details of it."
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh also weighed in Monday night, offering his assessment of the situation.
"Whatever happened, I'm sure those [police officers] were doing their best. On the other hand, we really feel strongly about Tony Fein. …If there is anybody who understands how to handle themselves with authority, it's Tony, who has been to Iraq."
Fein was arrested inside the Light Street Pavilion, not far from where two men were shot a week ago, prompting police to beef up enforcement. Mayor Sheila Dixon had predicted that "radicals" would speak out against additional pressure, while Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the more aggressive stance was "bound to hurt some people's feelings."
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Bealefeld's comments raised questions about profiling and that he sent a letter to the police commissioner on Aug. 20.
Fein "has a good record, and they can't paint a broad brush and say he's another one of these hoods in the community," Cheatham said. "It only highlights the concern we have."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, called the incident "no different" than the situation in Cambridge, Mass., involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose arrest touched off a national debate on race and led to beer-sharing with President Barack Obama at the White House. In both cases, Cherry said, officers were called by others to investigate complaints and received little cooperation.
"This was a call for service that Sergeant Donato and the other officers answered. They were doing their job," said Cherry, who called Donato "one of the best sergeants we have out there."
The arrest and the agent's claims stoked tensions on Internet message boards and talk radio. Larry Young, a former state senator who hosts a black-oriented radio show on WOLB 1010-AM, said the majority of his callers believed Fein was a victim of racial profiling put into motion by recent comments from Bealefeld and others.
When the officer approached, Fein was sitting at the Johnny Rockets restaurant with at least two other Ravens players: second-year running back Matt Lawrence and rookie wide receiver Jayson Foster. A team spokesman declined to confirm that those players and a third man, who handed the phone to Fein and who is white, were on the team's roster.
Van Kearney, the manager of the Phillips Seafood restaurant located near Johnny Rockets, said that people working at the pavilion "are jumpy" after the recent spate of incidents, including a shooting that occurred after an incident at his restaurant's salad bar. Kearney said he didn't blame the security guard for calling police.
Renee Mathews, a Ravens fan who lives in Baltimore and attended last night's game, said it seemed to her like the police acted inappropriately.
"You can't just assume in that situation that something is wrong," Mathews said.
Ravens fan Dan Poole of Perry Hall, who also attended yesterday's game, said he thought the incident could have been avoided had Fein remained calm.
"If the cops have something to ask you about while you're there, suck it up and be part of the solution," he said.
According to a police report of the incident, Donato received a report that a white male passed a large silver object to a black male, and noted Fein's sweat shirt.
"The attire did not seem weather appropriate to Sergeant Donato, based on time of year and temperature, and could be readily used to conceal and [sic] handgun," the report said.
Hobbs said Fein wears the sweat shirt to conceal heavily tattooed arms, which can draw unwanted attention.
Donato wrote that he ordered Fein to stand up and keep his hands in sight. He said Fein looked at Donato, frowned, then turned back around and reached for silverware. When Donato asked him a second time to stand up, Fein pushed Donato with one hand, records show. Donato wrote that he grabbed Fein by the sweat shirt and forced him to the ground. Fein, who is listed as 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, was handcuffed with help from other officers, Donato wrote.
Fein, a Washington state native who does not have a criminal record, served in the Army for 3-1/2 years, including a year in Iraq. He earned a scholarship to Mississippi and won the Pat Tillman Patriot Award, given to a football player who also saw military action. He is considered a long shot to make the Ravens roster.
Donato, a 15-year city police veteran, has received at least two departmental awards for his work, including a Silver Star in March, and has never been investigated by internal affairs, according to Guglielmi.
In 1998, Donato escaped injury when he got into a fight with a drug suspect who snatched his gun. The suspect stood over him and pulled the trigger from three feet away, but the gun, which had fallen into mud, jammed . Donato received a Bronze Star the next year.
But Jamal Gaston, 24, of Gwynn Oak, said he was wrongly charged one year ago by Donato after he had a dispute with bartenders at a club on The Block, Baltimore's adult entertainment district. Gaston said he and two friends had three drinks but received a tab for $400, and when they refused to pay the tab, bartenders called police. According to a statement of probable cause, when Donato arrived Gaston responded by "poking him in the chest several times with a pen, and then struck him one time in the chest with his finger."
Gaston, an information technology professional who has no other arrests, disputes Donato's account, saying he argued with Donato, then paid the tab and asked Donato for his name and badge number. He said he was thrown to the ground by Donato and handcuffed. Gaston brought witnesses to court to validate his story, but a prosecutor asked the judge to drop the case.
"This officer is very aggressive and should be exposed for what he's doing," Gaston said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jamison Hensley and Kevin VanValkenburg contributed to this article.