'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

Like most blacks in New York City, A.B. Bannerman had accepted the argument that his sons were more likely to be brutalized or killed by white police officers— never, until now, challenging the notion that black cops are capable of committing vicious crimes against their own race.

"My son was killed by seven black-ass niggers!" charges Bannerman, adding that the NYPD "figured the family was one of 'em gullible don't-know-nothin'-about-nothin' types who won't push the issue" of murder because all of the officers involved in the alleged killing of his son are black.

"They're not gonna get away with this!" he vows.

Nearly two hours after the seven black undercover narcotics cops allegedly stomped, kicked, and then shot at him as he fled, stumbling, into the darkness last

December, Reginald Bannerman wound up battered and bloody on the Manhattan-bound side of an IRT subway station in Brooklyn.

A source close to the investigation told the Voice that the last two witnesses to see Reginald alive at the Sterling Street station provided NYPD Internal Affairs officials with key information, which fits the family's contention that one of Reginald's alleged assailants caught up with him and pushed him in front of a train. But law enforcement sources maintain that Reginald, 36, dived into the path of the Number 2 train that killed him.

A female subway clerk at the station told investigators that sometime after 1 a.m. on December 19 she sold a token to a man who then paid his fare and went through the turnstile. Shortly afterward, according to the source, another passenger claimed he saw two men scuffling on the platform.

"His reaction was, 'Oh shit!' And he ran upstairs," the source says. Law enforcement sources denied there was a scuffle. "The lone independent witness on the platform said he saw Bannerman pacing up and down, and both he and the motorman said they saw him leap in front of the train," the source says. (The Bannerman family has filed a notice of claim with the city, arguing in part that the motorman was negligent because he failed to stop the train when he spotted Reginald. "Our position is that he did have time," says attorney Ron Kuby, who is representing the family with Michael Mossberg.)

In the wake of the indictment of four detectives in connection with Reginald's death, some of the accused officers' colleagues are trumpeting the theory that the case is probably another example of "suicide by cop."

Within days of scraping Reginald's mangled body off the subway tracks, the medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. Yet everyone who saw Reginald that night remembers him begging for his life— not acting like someone trying to get cops to kill him.

Officers Lloyd Barnaby, 38, and Mark Cooper, 28, face assault charges for allegedly stomping and kicking Reginald with their boots, beating him with a glass bottle, and firing over his head as he ran away. Along with Officer Edward Howard, 30, Barnaby and Cooper are accused of tampering with evidence by recovering shell casings to conceal what they did. And according to the Brooklyn district attorney, who unsealed the indictment on November 23, Cooper, Barnaby, and Officer Orice Connor, 29, were charged with official misconduct for failing to report the use of physical force. Barnaby also allegedly intimidated Karen Ramsey, a 35-year-old witness. (Marvyn Kornberg, the attorney for Connor and Howard, says that his clients were not present when Reginald was allegedly beaten.)

A veteran detective, upset over the indictment, argues that when Reginald "picked a fight" with the off-duty cops inside the BBB Soul and Seafood House restaurant in Crown Heights, he fit the pattern of a distraught person seeking death by police gunfire.

"That's just absurd," responds Kuby, who adds that the family also intends to sue the city for wrongful death. "If he wanted to commit suicide that night all he had to do was stand still because the cops were trying to kill him."

Although "suicide by cop" is a controversial topic gaining serious attention from law enforcement agencies nationwide, that theory has not been adopted by lawyers for the defendants or by Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who said that "the NYPD took immediate disciplinary action against . . . officers believed to be involved in the Bannerman case."

The Bannerman family has no doubts.

"My brother's street name was 'Life,' " says George Bannerman, 41, who tried to save Reginald as the cops allegedly pummeled him. "He had everything to live for. He was the opposite of me."

"He was working two jobs," adds the dead man's father. "He was a happy man. He loved his seven-year-old daughter, NaeNae. If you gon' kill yourself, why bother to pay your fare at the subway?"

Mr. Bannerman's theory is that his son's death is instead a case of "homicide by cops." He speculates that "after beating him like they did they knew they was gon' lose their jobs so they killed him to cover up, so he won't talk. I think they tried to make it look like he jumped in front of the train."

While Mr. Bannerman clings to his belief, Kuby says there is no evidence that Reginald was pushed. "Common sense dictates that he was chased, common sense dictates that he was followed, that the police officers played a direct role in his death," he told the Associated Press. In an interview with the Voice, he added: "The most likely scenario is that he was beaten so badly— one of his eyes was hanging out of its socket— that he became dazed, confused, and fell."

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."

Mr. Bannerman's agonizing search eventually led him to the Kings County Hospital morgue. As the attendant was about to show him a photo of a "John Doe" that had recently arrived, Mr. Bannerman remembers instinctively remarking, "Oh God, that's him!"

But he couldn't help looking.

"When I seen my son laying up there like that with his face all bust up, mister, something took my whole chest and tore it out. I was so messed up I couldn't sign papers. As I walked back downstairs my daughter, Regina, and her husband, Michael, was coming in. Both got hysterical and fainted."

It was left to A.B. Bannerman to notify his wife about Reginald's death. "We went up to the room where she was working," he remembers. "Her back was turned, and as she looked around and seen us crying, she said, 'Not my boy. Oh, no! Not my boy!' "

Research: W. Michelle Beckles

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