Russell's Rantings Serve To Expose Misplaced Values

March 22, 1992|By Elise Armacost

A county police captain is under investigation for allegedly raping one woman, pulling his pants down in front of another, assaulting a third, and sexually harassing a fourth. Another has been accused of locking a woman in her office and talking dirty to her.

So who is Police Chief Robert P. Russell threatening to pistol-whip for causing his department "unnecessary grief?"

Not the two captains. Russell is after the "mean-spirited" turncoat who, he believes, leaked word of the investigation to the press.

Last week, Russell fired off a blistering memo to all police employees, warning that he is on the lookout for anyone who talks to a reporter without his say so.

"It is still difficult for me to understand how someone can be so mean-spirited as to want to hurt their fellow officers," the chief wrote. He then promised he "will not hesitate to take disciplinary action" against any "self-appointed covert spokesperson."

Now, wait just a minute.

Here is a police chief with two of his highest-ranking officers accused by six female police employees -- six -- of serious sexual offenses. Barely a year has passed since another of Russell's officers, suspended in 1979 after a woman claimed that he raped her, was charged criminally with raping anotherwoman he had stopped for drunken driving.

If he's going to be upset, if he's going to be furious, if he's going to threaten disciplinary crackdowns and voice righteous indignation, it ought to be becausehis officers are suspected of abominable behavior -- not because someone in his department had a loose tongue.

But like the U.S. senators who have done everything but hire the Hardy Boys to find who tipped the press about Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas, Russell seems to be missing the point.

Though no doubt concerned about the charges under investigation -- he calls them "very serious offenses" in his memo -- Russell's anger stems not from the possibility that the offenses occurred, but from the fact that they became public knowledge.

He believes a March 5 Anne Arundel County Sun article reporting that a second captain was under investigation for alleged sexual harassment should never have appeared because the facts were not confirmed to our reporter by his official spokesman. (In fact, our story included an official confirmation, and we standby it.)

Beyond that, Russell feels -- and he is not alone in this-- that no departmental investigation should become public unless charges are filed or some departmental action is taken. Newspapers almost never release the names of ordinary citizens who are being investigated but have not been formally charged.

Why should police officers be treated any differently?

Because they have a public trust, that's why.

More than any other segment of society, police officersare vested with power for the specific purpose of protecting us fromharm. Their authority is a given; from the time we are children, we are taught not to question it.

While this principle also holds true, in varying degrees, for teachers, ministers, doctors and others responsible for our well-being, it applies irrevocably to police officers, who are entrusted with intimidating tools -- a gun and a badge, for instance -- that we deny to others.

The public has a right to know if a police officer has betrayed that trust -- or, indeed, if he is suspected of betraying it.

Thirteen years ago, former Anne Arundel County police officer Michael Ziegler was accused of raping a woman in her home. The woman said Ziegler knocked on her door and asked to use the phone. She said he never threatened her directly, and let him in because she never thought not to.

She trusted a police officer.

No charges were ever filed, and little, if anything, about this incident was ever published. The police chief, Maxwell Frye, suspended Ziegler without pay for 30 days and promised he would never again work patrol. After eight months, he was back on the street.

We know now what happened after that. Last year, he was allowed to resignin return for a new set of rape charges being dropped.

Russell isright. The police department has suffered its share of "unnecessary grief." But whatever troubles have been visited upon the department cannot be blamed on newspapers or those who, for whatever motives, choose to help them.

The problems facing this department stem from questions about the conduct of men who, by vocation, are supposed to beabove reproach.

That's what Chief Russell ought to be angry about.

Elise Armacost covers county government for The Anne Arundel County Sun.

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