When Erica Hamlett’s 16-year-old son Jawone Nicholson called her from a Howard County cul de sac while waiting for a bus, she assumed it was a routine check-in to let her know he was en route to an after-school program.

Instead, he told her a man he didn’t know had pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. Terrified, Hamlett sprang into action.

She rushed to the site of the confrontation. Soon, she learned the man, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, was an off-duty Baltimore cop. Jawone told her the man had pulled the gun after confronting the teen over why he was lingering in the neighborhood. The yet-to-be-identified man had flashed a badge and was still standing menacingly nearby.

Hamlett called Howard County police. An officer quickly disarmed the Baltimore cop, Damond Durant. But Hamlett was so shaken she also started to shoot video from her phone as she confronted him.

That footage became part of a series of TRNN investigations chronicling this fraught 2017 encounter and Hamlett’s subsequent push to hold Durant accountable—efforts that came to fruition last week when a federal jury awarded $250,000 to Hamlett’s son.

“The verdict in support of Mr. Nicholson is a clear message that members of the community will not stand for unwarranted violence against its members.”

The judgment was the result of a federal lawsuit filed by Baltimore attorney Carey J. Hansel. The filing describes how the troubling encounter caused Nicholson mental duress, including insomnia, panic attacks, and the need for months of therapy.

Hansel tried the case with his associate, Tiana Boardman. She said the jury’s decision was a clear statement that the community would not tolerate casual threats from officers.

“The verdict in support of Mr. Nicholson is a clear message that members of the community will not stand for unwarranted violence against its members.”

The impact of Officer Durant’s actions was first recounted to TRNN in 2018 in a series of interviews in which Nicholson recalled the tense moment when Durant confronted him.

“He pulled the gun and then we put our hands up and started walking away, and he followed us,” Nicholson told TRNN in an interview shortly after the encounter.

“He came up and he never identified himself as an officer. He asked us why we were over there, asked us a few questions, and then he pulled his gun.”

For Hamlett, the encounter was frighteningly similar to many often-deadly interactions between American police and young Black men.

“He can be doing everything right, everything right, and that man had every opportunity to kill my son,” Hamlett told TRNN.

“And from the lies that he’s told since the incident, he would have had no reason not to tell a lie to make it seem like my son provoked him to do what he did to him.”

The settlement has received widespread coverage in Baltimore. However, Hamlett’s nearly seven-year odyssey has received less attention.

Initially, she tried to file an internal affairs complaint against Durant over her concern that Durant’s reckless use of a gun could occur again.

“This particular police officer broke somebody’s jaw a few years ago. The city paid out a large settlement to the suspect. And then, here is this incident that occurred with my son. So, to me, it makes the officer feel like “I can do what I want with no accountability,” she said shortly after she filed the complaint.

The city did initially accuse Durant of violating departmental regulations by filing administrative charges. But a judge tossed the case after ruling that the city filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

Hamlett also tried to obtain a restraining order against Durant, representing herself pro se in a Howard County court. The judge ruled in her favor. For her, the ordeal has been a lesson in the obstacles to holding police accountable.  

Hamlett said to TRNN, “We are relieved that after seven long, difficult, even fearful, years, we finally received some form of justice. Holding police accountable for their actions isn’t a clear nor easy path. The officer is still a Baltimore City police officer and my son still has the fight of collecting his award, but we can finally celebrate a win… but without you and those 1 million-plus comments I’m sure our story wouldn’t have gotten the attention it deserved.”

Previously, Hansel’s firm was the lead litigant in a landmark civil rights case against the Baltimore Housing Authority. The suit alleged maintenance workers traded sex for repairs at the public housing complex Gilmor Homes. The city settled for $8 million in 2016.

Hansel Law Firm has become an important facet of government accountability for Baltimore residents, as they have reached out to assist victims in litigation after our investigative series in Gilmore Homes, Perkins Homes, and now Erica Hamlett’s family. 

Hamlett told TRNN, “No one else really listened before you… We just hope that others will gain the strength to fight for justice as well.”

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