Baltimore County police said to harass black officers


July 01, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Charles J. Jackson says he was investigated on departmental charges 26 times during his 13-year career as a Baltimore County police officer.

"Now, that many charges means one of two things," says Mr. Jackson. "Either I was a pretty poor excuse for a police officer or I'm a victim of harassment on the part of my supervisors."

Baltimore County alleges that Mr. Jackson was not a good officer. The department fired him in April for carrying his service revolver after his police powers had been suspended, for driving a car without a valid registration, and for disobeying orders.

But Mr. Jackson claims his experience was part of a pattern of harassment against black police officers in the county.

When he decided to go public, I looked into his story and interviewed more than two dozen other black officers in Baltimore County. They all agree with him.

But the police department strongly denies any ill-treatment of black officers. "There is zero tolerance for discrimination within this department," says Chief Cornelius Behan.

Mr. Jackson says his trouble began in 1986 when he filed a complaint against a white supervisor who had made a derogatory remark about his "fade" haircut.

"After that, they would come up with all sorts of stuff, ridiculous stuff, trumped-up stuff -- anything to keep me on the run and off-balance," claims Mr. Jackson, who also received 15 letters of commendation, and shared a unit citation, during his career.

Mr. Jackson's records show he was charged with misconduct for "winking, smiling and waving" at a citizen, causing "discomfort and concern." The citizen was the girlfriend of one of his white colleagues. Mr. Jackson was found not guilty.

The dispute over his haircut led to several charges of criminal misconduct and conducting an illegal wiretap, because he attempted to record his supervisor's remarks. A trial board eventually found him guilty of bringing discredit to another member of the department.

Several times, Mr. Jackson was found guilty of insubordination, failure to obey orders and neglect of duty, all for procedural mistakes that he claims are often forgiven when made by white officers.

He plans to appeal his firing and has filed a complaint against the department with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"The bottom line is, there are some officers and some supervisors on the force who do not want [blacks] out there and will do anything they can to sabotage our career," claims Mr. Jackson.

Many other black officers agree. They say blacks are more likely to be charged with departmental infractions than their white counterparts, more likely to be found guilty, and when convicted receive harsher punishment.

In recent years, similar complaints have been made about the treatment of blacks on the Maryland State Police and Baltimore City police force -- and against two federal law-enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

National phenomenon

"This is not a local problem, it is a national phenomenon," says Ronald E. Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. "There are on-going suits against over 100 police departments, right now. Well over a dozen major departments are still operating under consent decrees. And, in a substantial number of departments, the officers feel the oppression but have not reached the point where they organize and fight back.

"And in each of these cases," continues Mr. Hampton, "the complaints have centered around four issues: promotions, hiring, assignments and discipline. African American officers are getting hammered all over the country."

The complaints raise a key question about the often-strained relationship between police departments and the black communities they serve. If departments in general -- and white officers in particular -- have trouble treating black officers fairly, what does that say about the way civilians are treated?

"You're asking if it spills over onto the streets? Of course it does," says Mr. Hampton. "In fact, the situation may be getting worse. It all ties in with this notion of the black male, 20 to 25 years, as the universal criminal."

Black officers in Baltimore County told me that racial tension in the department seems to be getting worse, though modest improvements have been made in minority recruitment and promotions.

Blacks account for 8 percent of the department's 1,393 sworn personnel. As for black commanders, there are: one captain, two lieutenants, a sergeant and two corporals.

In all, I interviewed 26 of the 118 black officers on the force. All 26 said they must contend with an atmosphere of racism and discrimination within the department. Most did not want their names used.

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