'Homicide By Cop'

The medical examiner ruled Reginald Bannerman's death a suicide, but his family insists that a rogue black cop pushed him in front of a subway train

None of the alleged killer cops were charged with murder. But if they pursue "suicide by cop" as a defense, the allegations surrounding Reginald Bannerman's death may well help to redefine the meaning of that term as we know it.

It was six days before Christmas 1997. Lefferts High School, where Reginald Bannerman worked as a phys-ed instructor for 18 years, was closed. Reginald usually worked two jobs, but this Christmas he was devoting all his time to helping out at the "Three Bs," the restaurant at Bedford Avenue and Crown Street co-owned by his brother-in-law, Michael Knight.

Reginald, the restaurant's maintenance man, liked to rub shoulders with the prominent clientele, who included Mike Tyson, Erykah Badu, and Chico DeBarge. Protective of the restaurant's image as one of the trendiest in Brooklyn, Reginald doubled as security when patrons got rowdy. According to George Bannerman, who was working at the restaurant the night his brother was attacked, Reginald walked over to a raucous group of black men, who were celebrating a birthday, and asked them to tone down their revelry.

"One dude asked my brother, 'Do you own this?' " George recalls. "My brother said, 'No, I know the owner.' " George says that both he and Reginald continued with their chores. Around 12:30 a.m., as the restaurant was getting ready to close, he heard a commotion and stepped outside.

George remembers that he saw about seven men— some dressed in urban-awareness wear— one with oversized construction boots kicking and stomping someone on the ground. It was his brother.

"This dude is jumping in his face, stomping!" he recalls. George says he wedged himself between his brother and the man, who he describes as baldheaded, stocky, and light-skinned. He clasped his hands and thwarted another attempt to stomp Reginald, who appeared to be unconscious. "Man, you can't stomp him in his face, that's my brother!" he protested.

George says one of the men took a beer bottle and beat Reginald in the face with it. Michael Knight reportedly rushed to his brother-in-law's aid, shouting, "Man, what the fuck you doin'?"

Meanwhile, George, hovering over his brother, tried to protect him from the mob. Twice he blocked blows. Then, as one assailant attempted to deliver what George feared would be the coup de grâce, he says he took off his shirt and threw it at him, signaling by the prizefighter's code that the opponent had had enough.

Suddenly, George felt the cold muzzle of a 9mm pistol pressed against his temple. The gunman said nothing and George did not hear as much as a whimper from his brother. (A prosecutor's statement announcing the indictment identifies Detective Cooper as the officer "accused of menacing George Bannerman . . . by intentionally placing him in fear of serious physical injury or death by displaying a handgun." Cooper's attorney, Alan Friess, could not be reached for comment.)

"I thought they done stomped him out," George recalls. But suddenly, Reginald sprang from the ground.

"Somehow, my brother got up," George says. "They were all kind of shocked that he got up, the way they were stomping him." As Reginald broke free and started running down Bedford Avenue toward Empire Boulevard, several of the men allegedly whipped out guns and fired in rapid succession at him.

"They was tryin' to hit my brother," George insists. He says he attempted to follow Reginald but was held back by Knight, who urged him to go back to the restaurant. Meanwhile, the gunfire had alerted uniformed cops in squad cars nearby. " 'It's under control!' " George remembers hearing some of the men shout as they flashed badges at the arriving officers. "It was then I knew that they were cops," he says.

After the squad cars departed, the plainclothes cops scattered. Two of them darted in the direction Reginald had fled. According to George, his brother— terrified that the cops were chasing him— ran past his own apartment building nearby.

George says one of his brother's friends told him that Reginald appeared at his Lefferts Avenue apartment early that morning "all busted up, eyes bleeding, face swollen up." When the friend sat Reginald down and went to grab a coat to take him to the hospital, Reginald said he was going to his mother's apartment. He ran off, and it was the last the friend saw of him.

George Bannerman assumed that his brother had escaped and was hiding somewhere until it was safe to surface. "My brother was the type who would call his wife or our mother if he wasn't coming home," George explains. "If I hadn't showed up, they woulda thought nothing of it."

"When he didn't call, I knew something was wrong," says Mr. Bannerman, who lives in South Carolina, but was in New York for the holiday. "I never come into town and he doesn't call me. Never!" Sensing that something tragic had happened, Mr. Bannerman repeatedly called Reginald's wife, Joanna, looking for him. "I said this thing is very ugly. I didn't sleep all night. I just looked at television and cried."

Later that morning, after none of Reginald's relatives had heard from him, Mr. Bannerman drove his wife, Phemia, to Lutheran Hospital where she works as a medical technician. Before leaving the hospital he told her, "I'ma find him today, but I believe he is dead. It's not like him not to call."

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