Police and Perjury: A Drama Baltimore Case Leaves Questions, Bitterness

April 26, 1992|By DAVID SIMON | DAVID SIMON,David Simon covers criminal justice issues for The Baltimore Sun.

" I smell a rat," declared the mayor of Baltimore.

Perjury, said the city's chief prosecutor.

Resign, the offending police officers were told. Resign in disgrace or face indictment.

It was all good drama for a time, this business about police allegedly lying to obtain search warrants, then busting down doors in a wild, reckless search for narcotics. Good drama when one of the raided homes belonged to a relative of the mayor's wife.

"I'm going to call Kurt. I'm going to have your job," the angry relation is said to have shouted at the scene. Calls were made. Police supervisors came to the house and ordered the officers to stop their search.

Top-notch melodrama, with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke himself issuing opinions from City Hall as to the guilt or innocence of a handful of young officers. Sharp stuff, too, from the state's attorney, firing off indictments and declaring that he could not in good conscience tolerate any blemish on a sworn statement made by a Baltimore officer.

It looked good on paper, even better on some 30-second sound bite in which an anchorwoman might toss around phrases about fraudulent warrants and lying police officers. It looked good until last week, when a city judge ruled that nothing the mayor and the state's attorney were talking about could be called perjury.

After that, there wasn't much drama. Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis knocked down the state's perjury case against five Northwestern District drug officers. There remained only the flotsam from a political and legal misadventure, not to mention a fresh layer of anger and distrust between City Hall, the prosecutor's office and the rank and file of the Baltimore Police Department.

"I can't believe the mayor could get up there and simply turn the case into a personal vendetta," says one veteran prosecutor. "But that's essentially what he's done. He's left us with a real public image problem."

A ranking police official agrees bitterly: "The only message Kurt Schmoke sent to his police department is: 'Don't mess with my family and friends.' There isn't anything else to this crap beyond that."

Can it be as simple as that? A police investigation takes a wrong turn, goes through the wrong door of the wrong house, and a mayor known for genial calm is suddenly calling for the heads of the offending officers? A judge declares the state's perjury case to be little better than smoke, yet that same mayor declares publicly that the fight is not over, that the case may be pursued in federal trials or administrative hearings?

If it was Mr. Schmoke's desire to take a sharp stand against police corruption, he couldn't have done more to demean his case than choosing to do battle over an incident involving his own family -- an incident that offered far less evidence of police deception than a host of other recent cases soft-pedaled by prosecutors and police officials.

And if sending a message to police officers about the need for integrity was foremost in the mind of Stuart O. Simms, the city state's attorney, he could have easily chosen any number of cases involving willful fraud by officers with which to make his point.

Most important of all, if it was the desire of City Hall and the prosecutor's office to use this case to isolate corrupt and negligent police while reassuring competent and honest officers, they have missed the mark. Black and white, veteran and rookie, beat cop and supervisor -- most every man and woman in the Baltimore police department is now looking at what happened in Circuit Court last week with the same jaundiced eye.

"Here's my question," says one veteran police investigator. "I write a warrant that I think is good, and I enter a house to look for evidence. I come through the door, and the guy tells me, 'Hey, pal, I know the mayor.' What do I do? I'll tell you what I do. I say, 'Pardon me, sir,' and I go back out the door and say, 'To hell with investigating this crime.' "

All the deeper meanings have been lost in this debacle. And though the Baltimore department does indeed have a genuine problem with perjury and false statements by its officers, no one is paying attention to that now. Instead, a mayor's public wrath has taken a handful of young officers who engaged in some sloppy, negligent police work and made them martyrs among their colleagues.

And it isn't over.

"This doesn't end the matter by any stretch," the mayor told reporters after the charges were dismissed, suggesting further legal ordeals for these five officers. As for Nicholas Constantine, the officer who wrote the warrant for the home of the husband of a cousin of Dr. Patricia Schmoke:

"I was sorry that one officer's case didn't go to trial," the mayor said. "I thought that case had facts very different than the others."

*

Not so.

The case against Officer Constantine differed in no substantial way from the others.

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