Keystone Cops and Schmoke

April 25, 1992

Nothing brings on outrage more quickly than when someone you care about is wronged. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been fuming ever since last summer, when five city narcotics detectives -- apparently unaware of the family connection -- raided the house of his wife's cousin. It was a futile bust. Worse yet, the officers lied to obtain a search and seizure warrant.

City State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms brought perjury charges against the detectives. But a Circuit Court judge dismissed two of these cases, ruling that the officers had not committed a willful falsehood. "When we talk about perjury, we're talking about purposeful and intentional" falsehoods, Judge Andre M. Davis said.

After that action, Mr. Simms dropped perjury charges against the remaining officers. Yet the mayor continues to promise revenge. "This doesn't end the matter by any stretch," Mr. Schmoke declared. He pledged to pursue the matter either in federal court or before the police trial board.

This emotional conduct, however understandable, is totally uncharacteristic of Mr. Schmoke. In more than four years as Baltimore City's chief executive, he has never before permitted his temper to flare in public.

We strongly advise Mr. Schmoke to use the caution that has served him so well in the past in his career as a prosecutor and mayor. Otherwise, he may be asking for trouble at a time when the police department is embarking on what is certain to be a difficult reorganization. He also opens himself to charges that he is politicizing the police department's internal disciplinary process.

The whole affair has been a sorry mess. After Mr. Simms decided to lodge criminal charges against the officers, he dropped up to 200 narcotics cases because, he says, the officers had lost all credibility. Many legal experts say the officers' alleged offenses should have been handled as an internal police matter from the very beginning. They also note that Mr. Simms should have tested the officers' credibility in court before dropping all the narcotics cases.

In lying to get a warrant when no lie was necessary, the police officers acted stupidly -- or they followed a common practice that had not been previously challenged. Clearly, police routines must be re-examined and tightened. Perhaps the five officers merit disciplinary action. But if he is smart, Mayor Schmoke will separate himself from this case and let the police department handle these errors and misjudgments itself -- without heavy-handed political interference.

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